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ROSE Report Summary

Project ID: 313502
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: Netherlands

Final Report Summary - ROSE (Restriction and Obviation in Scalar Expressions: the semantics and pragmatics of range markers across and throughout languages)

Our vocabulary allows us to express precise quantities using number words. A language like English has an expressions for "136,938" ("one hundred and thirty-six thousand nine hundred and thirty-eight") just as it has an expression for "2" ("two"). Given this, why do such languages on top of that also have ways to express imprecise quantities, such as "more than hundred"? The answer is that imprecision is useful, since it allows conveying secondary information, such as that the precise quantity is unknown, or unimportant. That is, languages have a remarkably large vocabulary that concerns quantity since it allows languages to not just communicate the quantity itself, but also the discoursal properties that the quantity has. Language thus comes with ways to regulate how quantities are communicated, often in very subtle ways. For example, "I have at least two children" is an odd thing to say, since it seems to suggest the speaker does not know how many children s/he has. In contrast, "I have more than one child" is decidedly less odd. This project aimed to probe how languages regulate the communication of quantities and the inferences that are associated to them, using a combination of theoretical formal linguistics (syntax-semantics-pragmatics) and experimental investigation.

We found that many factors decide which inferences hearers draw on the basis of an utterance containing a modified numeral (i.e. a combination of a modifier like "at least" or "more than" and a number word). First of all, the availability of the secondary information provided by the modifier ("the quantity is unknown/irrelevant", etc.) is dependent on the absence of certain other expressions in that utterance, in particular so-called nominal or modal quantifiers. Such quantifiers may "obviate" the inferences normally triggered by the modifiers. In the literature, this process of obviation is often thought to be a matter of syntax (scope). However, we found no evidence for this. In particular, we found that obviation processes have properties that go beyond standard assumptions about scope. In the absence of obviation, we used a variety of laboratory experiments to look at the nature of the inferences triggered by the modifiers. We found that such inferences are pragmatic in nature. That is, they are defeasible inferences, not obligatory entailments.That said, we also found clear differences in strength of inferences across various kinds of modifiers. This effectively means that current models of how pragmatic inferences come about are too coarse-grained to do justice to our data. For this reason, we devised a hybrid model that uses both standard pragmatic reasoning and reasoning about lexical conventions.

In summary, when we draw inferences about utterances that communicate a quantity, we rely not just on run of the mill pragmatic mechanisms, but also on syntax and on information that is provided through convention. The results of this project show the importance of broad linguistic research, combining syntax, semantics, pragmatics and psycho-linguistics, using standard (cross-linguistic) armchair methodologies as well as advanced offline and online experimental techniques.

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