The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Colloquium (2/8) - Martina Wiltschko (UBC)

Speaker: Martina Wiltschko

Title: How to do things with nominals. Towards a syntax of nominal speech acts
Time: Friday, February 8th, 4pm-5:30pm

Room: 32-155

Abstract: Going back to Aristotle, classic grammatical description as well as current theories of grammar and the construction of meaning take the sentence to be the object of investigation. In his seminal work, Austin 1962 took a first step towards breaking with this tradition within philosophy of language. He argued that our understanding of meaning has to be informed by the fact that when we say things, we also do things. Different types of sentences give rise to different speech acts such as asserting, questioning, requesting, promising etc. and over the past sixty years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that speech act meaning is part of sentences, and hence part of grammatical structure. However, when we do things with words, we do not always use sentences. For example, a content question may be answered with a nominal phrase only (e.g., Who wrote that essay? Penelope). And by uttering a nominal we are also doing something. Specifically, we are attempting to identify a referent in a manner that will enable our interlocutors to recognize them.

This leads us to postulate a novel hypothesis, namely that noun phrases (like sentences) may be full-fledged speech acts. We refer to this as the nominal speech act hypothesis. Specifically, we postulate that, just like clauses, nominals are dominated by a layer of structure which encodes pragmatic information contributing to their use-conditions. They differ in that the speech act layer in the clausal domain establishes a direct link between the speech-act participants and the proposition denoted by the clause, while the speech act layer in the nominal domain establishes a direct link between the speech-act participants and the referent denoted by the nominal.

In this talk I provide empirical evidence for a dedicated nominal speech act layer. Specifically, the evidence I discuss comes from i) cross-linguistic variation in pronominal paradigms; ii) properties of impersonal pronouns; iii) properties of formality distinctions in nominal expressions; iv) distinctions between spatial and discourse functions of demonstratives.