, Volume 34, Issue 6, pp 537-570

Modularity and intuitions in formal semantics: the case of polarity items

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Abstract

Linguists often sharply distinguish the different modules that support linguistics competence, e.g., syntax, semantics, pragmatics. However, recent work has identified phenomena in syntax (polarity sensitivity) and pragmatics (implicatures), which seem to rely on semantic properties (monotonicity). We propose to investigate these phenomena and their connections as a window into the modularity of our linguistic knowledge. We conducted a series of experiments to gather the relevant syntactic, semantic and pragmatic judgments within a single paradigm. The comparison between these quantitative data leads us to four main results. (i) Our results support a departure from one element of the classical Gricean approach, thus helping to clarify and settle an empirical debate. This first outcome also confirms the soundness of the methodology, as the results align with standard contemporary accounts of scalar implicature (SI). (ii) We confirm that the formal semantic notion of monotonicity underlies negative polarity item (NPI) syntactic acceptability, but (iii) our results indicate that the notion needed is perceived monotonicity. We see results (ii) and (iii) as the main contribution of this study: (ii) provides an empirical interpretation and confirmation of one of the insights of the model-theoretic approach to semantics, while (iii) calls for an incremental, cognitive implementation of the current generalizations. (iv) Finally, our results do not indicate that the relationship between NPI acceptability and monotonicity is mediated by pragmatic features related to SIs: this tells against elegant attempts to unify polarity sensitivity and SIs (pioneered by Krifka and Chierchia). These results illustrate a new methodology for integrating theoretically rigorous work in formal semantics with an experimentally-grounded cognitively-oriented view of linguistic competence.