The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Special LFRG 10/6 - Patrick Grosz

Speaker: Patrick Grosz (Tuebingen)
Time: Tuesday, Oct. 6, 1-2:30pm
Location: 32-D831
Title: On the syntax and semantics of God knows what – a scalar epistemic indefinite

This talk investigates phrases such as ‘weiß Gott w-’ (‘God knows wh-‘) in German, in (1). Similar constructions are attested in a wide range of European languages (Haspelmath 1997:131).

(1) Der muss gedacht haben, wir seien weiß Gott wer. [DeReKo corpus, U03/AUG.02157]
intended: ‘He must have thought that we are someone important.’
literal: ‘He must have thought that we are God knows who.’

While ‘weiß Gott w-’ phrases originate as separate clauses (CPs) that are parenthetically inserted into a host clause (so-called “Andrews amalgams”, Lakoff 1974), I argue that ‘weiß Gott’ (‘God knows’) in Present Day German (PDG) has fully grammaticalized into an indefinite particle (like German ‘irgend’ [‘any, some’]); it combines with a wh-element to form a complex word of category D (an indefinite determiner/pronoun). I argue that ‘weiß Gott w-’ indefinites are scalar in that they [i.] existentially quantify over a subset X of the alternatives that the wh-element introduces, [ii.] and the alternatives in this subset X are high on a salient scale. This scalar effect is illustrated in (1), where ‘weiß Gott wer’ (‘God knows who’) is understood to mean ‘someone important’ (i.e. someone who is high on a scale of importance). I argue that the scalarity of ‘weiß Gott w-’ is part of the truth-functional at-issue content of a sentence (cf. Potts 2015), due to semantic reanalysis of what used to be a conversational implicature (cf. Eckardt 2006).