Strong and Weak Readings in the Domain of Worlds: A Negative Polar Modal and Children’s Scope Assignment

Abstract

This study investigates children’s interpretation of sentences with two logical operators: Dutch universal modal hoeven and negation (niet). In adult Dutch, hoeven is an NPI that necessarily scopes under negation, giving rise to a not > necessary reading. The findings from a hidden-object task with 5- and 6-year-old children showed that children’s performance is suggestive of an interpretation of sentences with hoeft niet in which the modal scopes over negation (necessary > not). This is in line with the Semantic Subset Principle that dictates that children should opt for the strongest possible reading in case of potential scope ambiguities. The full pattern of results, however, seems to be determined, in addition, by a particular strategy children use when facing uncertainty called Premature Closure.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Another relevant parameter when interpreting modals is the ordering source. The discussion of this parameter, however, is beyond the scope of the present paper (see Kratzer 1981).

  2. 2.

    Although some material could linearly occur between the two, this will result in a different meaning, with negation having narrow scope and resulting in a constituent-type of negation.

    i. Il cavallo non sempre può essere nella scatola

    the horse not always might be in the box

    “the horse might not always be in the box” .

  3. 3.

    Epistemic modals with narrow scope under negation are also recognized in von Fintel and Iatridou (2003).

  4. 4.

    Note that these children are younger than the age group we will test in our experiment.

  5. 5.

    Note that for Lin et al. (2015) hoeven acquires its NPI-hood on the basis of the distribution in the input. For these authors, therefore, knowing the distributional pattern of hoeven would imply knowing its scope assignment. However, as pointed out in the text, co-occurrence of hoeven and negation is not informative about scope assignment per se.

  6. 6.

    There is much more to say about the semantics of modal zullen ‘will’, but that is outside the scope of the present paper. See for a discussion on English will for instance Von Stechow (1995) and Cariani and Santorio (2017). What is crucial here is that “niet zal” has the strong reading of necessarily not.

  7. 7.

    Furthermore, whereas hoeft is only used for \(3{\mathrm{rd}}\) and \(2{\mathrm{nd}}\) (only in declaratives) person singular, moet and zal are used in \(1{\mathrm{st}}\), \(2{\mathrm{nd}}\), and \(3{\mathrm{rd}}\) person singular.

  8. 8.

    Children’s overall responses in the Negative Strong Conditions showed minimal variance. This prevented convergence of GLM models. We therefore ran a model without the Negative Strong Conditions to directly compare Positive and Negative Weak conditions.

  9. 9.

    Of course, an individual child might always prefer to close off one particular alternative. As mentioned, it is impossible to draw firm conclusions on the basis of the individual data. At the same time, the results are in line with what one would expect on the basis of a premature closure account.

  10. 10.

    Note that the Negative Strong items in the present experiment did not introduce the same uncertainty. These sentences would give rise to the same judgment, regardless of which box the child considered.

  11. 11.

    Lin et al. (2017) hypothesize that the child first postulates that hoeft must always co-occur with niet and only later on (after age 4) reanalyses this as an abstract NEG.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the teachers and children at Montessori school Oosterhout and De Kring, Rijen for their enthusiastic participation in this study.

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Correspondence to Loes Koring.

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All the authors equally contributed to this article. Their names are listed in alphabetical order.

Appendix A

Appendix A

Output for the mixed-effects model. The baseline is the Positive True condition. Estimates indicate performance as compared to this baseline. This model converges with optimizer bobyqa and an increased number of iterations.

Fixed effects Estimate (SE) \(p<\)
Condition Positive False \(-\,4.51\) (2.09) .05
Condition Negative Weak True \(- 5.27\) (2.11) .05
Condition Negative Weak False \(- 2.37\) (1.97) n.s.
Age 1.17 (0.48) .05

Final model: \(\hbox {m.main} = \hbox {glmer}(\hbox {Correct} \sim 1 + \hbox {Condition} + \hbox {Age} + (1{\vert } \hbox {Subject}) + (1 {\vert }\hbox {Item}) + (1 + \hbox {Condition} {\vert }\hbox {Subject})\), \(\hbox {data} = \hbox {mydata, family} = \hbox {binomial},\hbox {control} = \hbox {glmerControl} (\hbox {optimizer}=``\hbox {bobyqa''}, \hbox {optCtrl}=\hbox {list}(\hbox {maxfun}=100000))).\)

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Koring, L., Meroni, L. & Moscati, V. Strong and Weak Readings in the Domain of Worlds: A Negative Polar Modal and Children’s Scope Assignment. J Psycholinguist Res 47, 1193–1217 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10936-018-9573-8

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Keywords

  • Semantic Subset Principle
  • Scope assignment
  • Modality
  • Negation
  • Acquisition