The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Colloquium 10/3 - Paul Egré

Speaker: Paul Egré (Institut Jean-Nicod)
Title: Intensional readings of “many” and moral expectations
Time: Friday, 10/3/14, 3:30-5:00 PM
Venue: 32-141

The determiner “many” is unlike “some” or “all” in that i) it is vague and context-sensitive: how many counts as many depends both on the context and on the speaker (see Partee 1989), and ii) it has intensional readings, in the sense that “many As are Bs” and “many Cs are Ds” can differ in truth value even as the predicates A and C are coextensional, and the predicates C and D are (Keenan and Stavi 1986, Fernando and Kamp 1996, Lappin 2000). Intensional readings of sentences of the form “many As are Cs” can often be given a comparative paraphrase in terms of expectations: “many students left” meaning “(significantly) more students left than expected”. In this paper, I propose to clarify the notion of expectation in question. Two kinds of expectations ought to be distinguished. One concerns statistical expectations in a broad sense, which involve a representation of how likely or typical an event is (see Moxey and Sanford 1993, and Fernando and Kamp 1996 on “many”). Another kind concerns moral expectations in a broad sense, involving a representation of how good or desirable an event is. The latter has received less attention in the literature. I will present the results of a set of experimental studies, run jointly with Florian Cova (University of Geneva), in which we investigated the sensitivity of judgments involving “many” to those two kinds of expectations. The results indicate that judgments involving “many” are sensitive to both kinds of expectations, but they show a considerable influence of moral expectations proper. Our main finding is that the threshold relevant to ascribe “many” is systematically lowered for predicates that have a negative value or that are matched with a more undesirable outcome. This pattern of results bears a substantive connection with the asymmetry originally pointed out by Kahneman and Tversky (1979) concerning the perception of losses vs. gains. I will discuss different ways in which the sensitivity of “many” to moral expectations might be regimented. I will also look at the results from the perspective of extensional accounts of the semantics of “many” (Solt 2012, Greer 2014), in which intensional readings are accounted for in terms of a shift of comparison class.