Whamit!

The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Semantics Talks 6/5 - Matthijs Westera and Ayaka Sugawara

Date/Time: Wednesday, Jun 5, 3pm
Location: 32-D461

Speaker: Matthijs Westera (University of Amsterdam)
Title: A pragmatics-driven theory of intonational meaning

I present a compositional semantics for Dutch(/English/German) intonation that crucially treats high phrase accents/boundary tones as signalling conversational maxim violations. Together with Attentive Pragmatics – a set of maxims I proposed earlier for an account of exhaustivity implicatures – this simple assumption is shown to yield very fine-grained and, it seems, accurate semantic/pragmatic predictions for various contours, e.g., that contrastive topic must scope over focus, that fall-rise indicates uncertain relevance or incredulity, and how this all interacts with context. I argue that the assumed intonational meanings are non-arbitrary, suggesting a universal tendency, at least in non-tonal languages, towards an intonational semantics along these lines. Finally, the apparent semanticization of the maxims invites reflection on their status in linguistic theory.

Speaker: Ayaka Sugawara
Title: Covered Box Task to investigate acquisition of scopally ambiguous sentences: evidence from scrambled sentence in Japanese

(Practice talk for FAJL; joint work with Ken Wexler.)

A major open question in the theory of language acquisition is why children speaking English seem to have difficulty interpreting inverse scope of negation and a universal subject quantifier. Our results contribute both to the solution to this puzzle and provide evidence for particular approaches to the A-movement of Japanese and the theory of contrastive topic. We will argue that children have difficulty with at least some forms of reconstruction and alternative comparison which takes place at LF, but do not have a problem with interpreting a particular logical form generated by syntax.

We conducted two experiments in Japanese with Japanese-speaking children. Our first experiment shows that children accept the not>all reading of scrambled sentences, where the not>all reading is supported by the syntax

Our second experiment shows that children completely fail to get the unambiguous not>all reading of Contrastive Topic sentences, where not>all reading is derived at LF. The difficulty seems to be related to the same type of “alternatives comparison” difficulty that is the major explanation of children’s difficulties with scalar implicatures.

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