The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

ESSL 2/27 - Leon Bergen

Time: Thursday, February 27, 5-6:30
Place: 32-D831
Speaker: Leon Bergen
Title: Pragmatic reasoning as semantic inference

A number of recent proposals have used techniques from game theory to formalize Gricean pragmatic reasoning (Franke, 2011; Jäger, 2013). In this talk, I will discuss two phenomena that pose fundamental challenges to game-theoretic accounts of pragmatics. The first are manner implicatures, such as the following contrast (Horn, 1984):

1) a. John started the car.
b. John got the car started.

While both sentences are (plausibly) truth-conditionally equivalent, 1b. receives a marked interpretation due to its more complex form. The second set of phenomena are embedded implicatures which violate Hurford’s constraint (Hurford, 1974; Chierchia, Fox, & Spector, 2009):

2) a. Some of the students passed the test.
b. Some or all of the students passed the test.
c. Some or most of the students passed the test.

Standard game-theoretic models do not have the resources to explain the contrast between 2b. and c., as these sentences differ neither in their semantic content nor in their syntactic complexity. In order to account for these phenomena, I propose a realignment of the division between semantic content and pragmatic content. Under this proposal, the semantic content of an utterance is not fixed independent of pragmatic inference; rather, pragmatic inference partially determines an utterance’s semantic content. This technique, called lexical uncertainty, derives both M-implicatures and the relevant embedded implicatures, and preserves the derivations of more standard implicatures.