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Talk by Marie-Christine Meyer (Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS)) "Constraints on Complexity"

In this talk I am going to investigate the role of syntactic and prosodic complexity on what the hearer will infer about the speaker’s state of mind. Roughly put, there is a correlation such that complexity is associated with assumed speaker ignorance. To illustrate, consider the following answers to the question “How many of Mary’s students got an A?”

(1) Some of themLL%

(2) Some or all of them

(3) SOME of themLH%

From a naive semantic perspective, these three sentences should be equivalent. However, as we will establish, (2) and (3) pattern alike in allowing for the inference that the speaker is ignorant about whether or not all of Mary’s students got an A. (1), on the other hand, can not have this meaning component.

What could explain this connection between the use of a more complex structure — “some or all” or the rise-fall-rise contour L+H*LH% — and the observed ignorance effect?

I argue that this arises through the interplay of semantics and pragmatics. Concerning the semantics, I show that the existence of covert operators (K for “be certain” and exh for “only”) is one way of deriving the observed effects. I then proceed to argue that augmenting our assumptions about the functional lexicon is the only way to derive these effects, thus rejecting the naive semantic perspective. This argument will come from independent pragmatic considerations, and specifically, from the time-honored idea that language use obeys principles of rational behavior. It is only in the presence of the semantic ignorance effects that the complex structures can obey these principles.