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Mass nouns, vagueness and semantic variation

Abstract

The mass/count distinction attracts a lot of attention among cognitive scientists, possibly because it involves in fundamental ways the relation between language (i.e. grammar), thought (i.e. extralinguistic conceptual systems) and reality (i.e. the physical world). In the present paper, I explore the view that the mass/count distinction is a matter of vagueness. While every noun/concept may in a sense be vague, mass nouns/concepts are vague in a way that systematically impairs their use in counting. This idea has never been systematically pursued, to the best of my knowledge. I make it precise relying on supervaluations (more specifically, ‘data semantics’) to model it. I identify a number of universals pertaining to how the mass/count contrast is encoded in the languages of the world, along with some of the major dimensions along which languages may vary on this score. I argue that the vagueness based model developed here provides a useful perspective on both. The outcome (besides shedding light on semantic variation) seems to suggest that vagueness is not just an interface phenomenon that arises in the interaction of Universal Grammar (UG) with the Conceptual/Intentional System (to adopt Chomsky’s terminology), but it is actually part of the architecture of UG.

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Correspondence to Gennaro Chierchia.

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Chierchia, G. Mass nouns, vagueness and semantic variation. Synthese 174, 99–149 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-009-9686-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-009-9686-6

Keywords

  • Atomicity
  • Classifiers
  • Mass/count
  • Parameters
  • Singular/plural
  • Supervaluations