Martin Hackl (MIT) gave the department colloquium on Friday, Nov. 21. The title of his talk was: On the Acquisition and processing of “only”: Question Answer Congruence, Scalar Presupposition, and the Structure of ALT(S). An abstract follows.
In this talk, which is based on ongoing joint work with Ayaka Sugawara, Erin Olson, and Ken Wexler, I will suggest an approach to understand a curious phenomenon concerning the acquisition of only. As Crain et al. (1992, 1994) showed, children up to at least age six display a surprisingly robust rate of assigning non-adult interpretations to sentences with subject only. For instance, children may judge Kermit’s answer in (1a) to the question Kermit, can you tell me what happened? as true relative to a scene where a cat is holding a flag, a goose is holding a flag and a balloon, and a frog is holding a balloon. Moreover, when asked why they think Kermit was correct, they offer justifications indicating that they assigned (1a) an interpretation as in (1b).
(1) What happened?
a. Only the cat is holding a flag.
b. The cat is only holding a flag.
Crain et al.’s results have been replicated since for a number of languages including German, Japanese, and Mandarin suggesting that at least some the factors at play operate on properties of sentences with only that are invariant across languages. I will argue, based on results from a series of experiments with children and adults, for three such factors – A. Question-Answer Congruence, B. the scalar presupposition of only, and C. the nature of the set of alternatives, ALT(S), relevant for the interpretation of only – and propose a simple comprehension model for sentences with only that offers a principled characterization of when sentences with only are relatively easy or relatively difficult to comprehend.