Syrett colloquium

October 28, 2020

The 2020-2021 colloquium series continues on Monday, Nov 2, with a talk by Kristen Syrett (Rutgers), held via Zoom from 3:10-4:30. The talk is entitled What partial objects tell us about context in nominal semantics, and the abstract is as follows:

Becoming a proficient speaker requires recognizing that the context in which we deliver our utterances affects meaning, even at the lexical level. This influence of context is well known for indexicals like now or pronouns like I or you, gradable adjectives such as big, or predicates of personal taste such as fun, which encode context directly into their semantic representation. Chierchia 2010, Landman 2011, and Rothstein 2010 have proposed that context also plays a key role in the interpretation of count nouns. These proposals not only have implications for lexical representations, but also for the process of language acquisition: what does it mean for children to know that nouns like cup and ball—which are among the earliest words a child comprehends and produces—are context-dependent, and what are the observable consequences? To date, no systematic experimental work has targeted this position on the semantics of nouns or the developmental implications, despite a growing body of work targeting these other context-dependent expressions.

I present a set of studies from an ongoing collaboration with Athulya Aravind (MIT) targeting children’s and adults’ treatment of partial and whole objects as means to probing nominal semantics. We take as a starting point two separate lines of research, investigating and extending them in parallel. The first is a well-known and oft-replicated finding from Shipley & Shepperson (1990): when young children are presented with a set of partial and whole objects (like forks) and are asked to count or quantify them, they count the partial objects as if they were wholes. The second is experimental research on gradability in the adjectival domain (Syrett, Kennedy, & Lidz, 2010). Integrating our results, we argue that while some researchers have taken children’s non-adult-like counting and quantifying behavior with discrete partial objects to signal either a shift in conceptual development or a lack of knowledge of lexical alternatives that implicates pragmatics, the results are consistent with children’s developing understanding of how nominal semantics shrinks or expands the domain of application, and where children diverge from adults is in the ability to identify speaker intentions in a discourse context. Moreover, while nouns may depend on the context, they do so in a way that is distinctly different from relative gradable adjectives—which encode a context-dependent standard—instead align with absolute gradable adjectives. Taken together, the findings indicate that even the most basic count nouns depend on the discourse context for interpretation. While adults seem to know this, it is something that children gradually come to recognize, as they become increasingly sensitive to the goals of communication.