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Linguistics Colloquium Series: Eric Acton - Definites, alternatives, and generalized pragmatic inference

When: Friday, May 13, 2022
3:30 PM - 6:00 PM Central

Where: Chambers Hall, Hybrid: in-person and Zoom, 600 Foster St, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Talant Abdykairov   (847) 467-3384

Group: Linguistics Department

Category: Academic


Pragmatic research has shown that enrichments to utterances’ semantic meaning can often be derived from comparing a given utterance to alternative utterances that could have been said instead. E.g., saying, ‘some X’, where the semantically stronger form all X is available often implies ‘not all X’. In my own work on definite DPs, I have argued that comparing the structural, semantic, and socio-indexical properties of an utterance to the properties of alternative utterances engenders inferences not only about descriptive content (as in some +> ‘not all’) but also—by the same principles appropriately generalized—about the speaker’s attitudes and relations to other individuals. For example, given the availability of forms like the briefer Americans and semantically stronger we (Americans), using the Americans to talk about Americans as a group often suggests that the speaker is not an American. This talk lays out some of my current thinking about general principles of pragmatic interpretation that underlie such effects. As I will show, these principles give rise to a range of social meanings involving definite DPs and help explain why determiners and pronouns readily lend themselves to social meaning. I will likewise show that the importance of alternatives in human interpretation is rooted in rationality and very general indeed, applying to all sources of linguistic meaning – from the semantic to the sociophonetic – and to nonlinguistic domains as well. In this same vein, this talk aims to highlight the multidimensionality of meaning and to encourage thinking about how these dimensions compare to and inform each other.

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