The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

ESSL/LacqLab Meeting Talk: Yadav Gowda and Elise Newman (MIT)

Speakers: Yadav Gowda and Elise Newman (MIT)
Title: Polarity Sensitivity of Even in Early Child Grammar
Date and Time: Friday, 10/12 2-3pm
Location: 32-D831

This study explores non-adult-like behavior in children’s comprehension of the scalar focus particle even, which triggers a polarity-sensitive likelihood inference (“least-likely presupposition” in positive sentences, “most-likely presupposition” in negative sentences; Karttunen&Peters’79):

  1. Even Alex sang.
            Inferred: Alex was least-likely to sing.
  1. Even Alex didn’t sing.
            Inferred: Alex was most-likely to sing.

We probe children’s comprehension of even with a forced choice task. Children are shown stories about 3 characters of different sizes (not identified by name) attempting to do some task, which scales in difficulty by their size. The story ends when all the characters either succeed or fail, and the experimenter says, “Even X was(n’t) able to [do the task]!”. Participants are then asked to identify X and provide a justification for their answer. 

We observe a polarity effect: children exhibit more adult-like interpretations in negative environments than in positive environments. This asymmetry interacts with age: younger children (3-4ya) exhibit a more pronounced asymmetry than older children (5-6ya), struggling more to understand even in positive contexts, and often choosing the middle character (i.e. neither least- nor most-likely). Additionally, their justifications show that they use scalar reasoning when choosing extrema characters but not when choosing middle characters.

Child performance on this task and their justifications for their answers suggest two things: 1) they treat even as an NPI at some stage of development (Rooth 1985, Tieu 2010), and 2) they use scalar reasoning to evaluate even before they have learned the adult interpretation. This suggests an expansion of the hypothesis space for scalar focus particles.