The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Linguistics Colloquium 4/8 - Rick Nouwen

Speaker: Rick Nouwen (Utrecht University)
Time: Friday, April 8, 2011, 3:30pm-5pm
Location: 32-141 (PLEASE NOTE ROOM)
Title: Superlative modifiers and modality


In the literature on the semantics of “at least” and similarly superlative modifiers, there has been much attention to the interaction of such modifiers with modality. In this talk, I will focus on two observations that are central to this interaction: (I) sentences like (a) give rise to ignorance implicatures, in the sense that (a) implies that the speaker does not know how many cards John picked; and (II) such implicatures disappear in modal environments: (b) has a reading that is simply a statement of minimum requirement, with no implicature about the speaker’s knowledge.

(a) John picked at least 3 cards.
(b) John is required to pick at least 3 cards.

In this talk, I will compare two strategies to account for these observations: (I) ignorance implicatures are due to the requirement that the modifiers operate on a scalar argument; (II) the ignorance implicatures triggered by “at least” are the ignorance implicatures triggered by disjunctions. I will compare these approaches with respect to a larger data set that includes the behaviour of ordinary superlatives, adjectives like “minimal” and “maximal” and definite descriptions that refer to scalar end-points, like “the earliest John should arrive”.