SPOCC: The Semantics and Pragmatics of Conditional Connectives: cross-linguistic and experimental perspectives

Principal investigator:
Prof. Dr. Mingya Liu
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Funding period:

Project description:
The concept of conditionality is central to human thought and action, which is manifested by a rich repertoire of conditional expressions in natural language. A conditional sentence of the form, for example, ‘If p, q’, is constructed by a conditional connective if, an antecedent (p) and a consequent (q). In the literature of formal semantics and pragmatics, the meaning contribution of conditional connectives has been long debated. According to the restrictor analysis (Kratzer 1986/1991), English if is an operator with no semantics on its own and if-clauses are used to restrict overt or covert modal operators or generic frequency operators. This analysis has inspired many insightful follow-up studies through which it becomes clear that the interpretation of conditional sentences and their semantic/pragmatic properties are subject to a process of semantic and pragmatic modulation. Among others, conditional connectives can influence the interpretation of conditional sentences in various ways. For example, while a conditional sentence can get a counterfactual reading by use of past perfect in English or through a combination of present perfect and subjunctive mood in German, counterfactuality can be realized by specific conditional connectives in Mandarin conditional sentences (e.g. Wu 1994, Jiang 2014). Moreover, it has been observed that conditional connectives can turn a conditional sentence into a bi-conditional one semantically or (arguably) pragmatically (e.g. Geis and Zwicky 1971 and subsequent works), that conditional connectives can express non-at-issue speaker attitudes towards the antecedent and/or the consequent (e.g. Visconti 1996) and that conditional connectives affect a conditional sentence in its ability to license/anti-license polarity items (e.g. Leslie 2008, Hoeksema 2012, Liu 2012). However, the existing results are far from conclusive; overall, the current literature lacks systematicity regarding the modulating role of conditional connectives in conditional sentences.

The proposed project aims to study the distribution, semantics and pragmatics of conditional connectives in different languages with a focus on German and Mandarin Chinese, using formal semantic/pragmatic (e.g. the speaker commitment model of Giannakidou (1998/2014), the three-dimensional semantic framework of Liu (2012)) and psycholinguistic (comprehension, production, EEG) methods. Due to the multifaceted meaning aspects involved in conditional connectives (such as implicatures and presuppositions), the results will shed light on the scope and limits of existing formal models and experimental paradigms of semantics, pragmatics and reasoning.