, Volume 174, Issue 1, pp 79–98 | Cite as

Color, context, and compositionality

  • Christopher KennedyEmail author
  • Louise McNally


Color adjectives have played a central role in work on language typology and variation, but there has been relatively little investigation of their meanings by researchers in formal semantics. This is surprising given the fact that color terms have been at the center of debates in the philosophy of language over foundational questions, in particular whether the idea of a compositional, truth-conditional theory of natural language semantics is even coherent. The challenge presented by color terms is articulated in detail in the work of Charles Travis. Travis argues that structurally isomorphic sentences containing color adjectives can shift truth value from context to context depending on how they are used and in the absence of effects of vagueness or ambiguity/polysemy, and concludes that a deterministic mapping from structures to truth conditions is impossible. The goal of this paper is to provide a linguistic perspective on this issue, which we believe defuses Travis’ challenge. We provide empirical arguments that color adjectives are in fact ambiguous between gradable and nongradable interpretations, and that this simple ambiguity, together with independently motivated options concerning scalar dimension within the gradable reading accounts for the Travis facts in a simpler, more constrained, and thus ultimately more successful fashion than recent contextualist analyses such as those in Szabó (Perspectives on semantics, pragmatics and discourse: A festschrift for Ferenc Kiefer, 2001) or Rothschild and Segal (Mind Lang, 2009).


Color terms Compositionality Indexicality Contextualism Ambiguity Gradability Classifying properties 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Asher, N. (2007). A web of words: Lexical meaning in context. Ms., CNRS-IRIT and U. Texas Austin.Google Scholar
  2. Berlin B., Kay P. (1969) Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. University of California Press, Berkeley, CAGoogle Scholar
  3. Broström, S. (1994). The role of metaphor in cognitive semantics. Lund: Lund University Cognitive Studies 31.Google Scholar
  4. Carlson, G. N. (1977). Reference to kinds in English. PhD thesis, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.Google Scholar
  5. Chierchia G. (1995) Individual-level predicates as inherent generics. In: Carlson G., Pelletier F. J. (eds) The generic book. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp 176–223Google Scholar
  6. Gärdenfors P. (2000) Conceptual spaces: On the geometry of thought. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  7. Grinder J., Postal P. (1971) Missing antecedents. Linguistic Inquiry 2: 269–312Google Scholar
  8. Hankamer J., Sag I. (1976) Deep and surface anaphora. Linguistic Inquiry 7: 391–428Google Scholar
  9. Kennedy, C. (1999). Projecting the adjective: The syntax and semantics of gradability and comparison. New York: Garland (1997 UCSC PhD thesis).Google Scholar
  10. Kennedy C. (2007) Vagueness and grammar: The semantics of relative and absolute gradable predicates. Linguistics and Philosophy 30(1): 1–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kennedy C., McNally L. (2005) Scale structure and the semantic typology of gradable predicates. Language 81(2): 345–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kratzer A. (1995) Stage-level and individual-level predicates. In: Carlson G., Pelletier F. (eds) The generic book. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, pp 125–175Google Scholar
  13. Lahav R. (1993) The combinatorial-connectionist debate and the pragmatics of adjectives. Pragmatics and Cognition 1: 71–88Google Scholar
  14. Lakoff G. (1970) A note on vagueness and ambiguity. Linguistic Inquiry 1(3): 357–359Google Scholar
  15. Lasersohn P. (1999) Pragmatic halos. Language 75(3): 522–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Predelli S. (2005) Painted leaves, context, and semantic analysis. Linguistics and Philosophy 28: 351–374CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Quine W. V. O. (1960) Word and object. MIT Press, Cambridge, MAGoogle Scholar
  18. Rothschild D., Segal G. (2009) Indexical predicates. Mind and Language 24(4): 467–493CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Rotstein C., Winter Y. (2004) Total adjectives vs. partial adjectives: Scale structure and higher-order modifiers. Natural Language Semantics 12: 259–288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Sainsbury R. M. (2001) Two ways to smoke a cigarette. Ratio 14(4): 386–406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Sauerland U., Stateva P. (2007). Scalar vs. epistemic vagueness: Evidence from approximators. In Gibson M., Friedman T. (eds). Proceedings of SALT 17 (pp. n–m). Ithaca, NY: CLC Publications.Google Scholar
  22. Szabó Z. (2001) Adjectives in context. In: Kenesei I., Harnish R. M. (eds) Perspectives on semantics, pragmatics and discourse: A festschrift for Ferenc Kiefer. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp 119–146Google Scholar
  23. Travis C. (1985) On what is strictly speaking true. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 15(2): 187–229Google Scholar
  24. Travis C. (1994) On constraints of generality. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94(2): 165–188Google Scholar
  25. Travis C. (1997) Pragmatics. In: Hale B., Wright C. (eds) A companion to the philosophy of language. Blackwell, Oxford, pp 87–106Google Scholar
  26. Wheeler S. (1972) Attributives and their modifiers. Noûs 6(4): 310–334CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Zwicky A., Sadock J. (1975) Ambiguity tests and how to fail them. In: Kimball J. P. (eds) Syntax and semantics. Academic Press, New York, pp 1–36Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Departament de Traducció i Ciències del LlenguatgeUniversitat Pompeu FabraBarcelonaSpain

Personalised recommendations