The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Colloquium 5/17 - Emmanuel Chemla

The final linguistics colloquium of the semester takes place this Friday.

Speaker: Emmanuel Chemla (LSCP-CNRS Paris)
Date/Time: May 17 (Friday), 3:30-5pm
Venue: 32-141
Title: Polarity items are acceptable in subjectively monotone environments (Based on joint work with Vincent Homer and Daniel Rothschild)


This talk is part of a reflection about the status of linguistic generalizations of the form: “Sentence S is acceptable to the extent that it satisfies property P”, where a linguistic intuition is related with an abstract, objective, mathematical property P. As a case study, we will defend the following version of the good-old generalization about the distribution of NPIs: “NPIs are acceptable *to the extent that* they are in an environment that is recognized as downward entailing”. We will present two sets of results in favor of this subjective version of the generalization. First, we will show that the acceptability of an NPI for a given speaker best correlates with the ability of this particular speaker to recognize that the environment is downward-entailing (Chemla, Homer, Rothschild, 2011). Second, we will show that the presence of a polarity item influences inferences comprehenders are willing to draw. Roughly, they create illusions of monotonicity (contra Szabolcsi, Bott, McElree, 2008). We will show that the shape of these illusions provides further direct evidence in favor of the generalization we defend and against previous approaches (in particular, they go against the idea of local licensing of NPIs under double negations, see Chemla, Homer, Rothschild, in preparation). We will conclude with a discussion about: (a) the position of our generalization with respect to critical configurations discussed in the literature about polarity items (Schwarz/Heim puzzle, non-assertive environments such as questions, etc.), (b) what such results teach us about the linguistic ability and its interface with other abilities.