Workshop on “Asymmetries in Language: Presuppositions and beyond”

Matthew Mandelkern (University of Oxford), Jacopo Romoli (Ulster University), Uli Sauerland (ZAS) and Florian Schwarz (UPenn)

Time and venue:
July 1-3rd, 2019 at ZAS Berlin, Trajekte-Room, 3rd floor; How to get to ZAS!

To participate in the workshop, please register by June 23rd at the latest!

Invited speakers: Márta Abrusán (ENS, Paris), Sigrid Beck (Eberhard-Karls Universität, Tübingen), Gennaro Chierchia (Harvard University, Cambridge), Jakub Dotlačil (ILLC Universiteit van Amsterdam), Clemens Mayr (Georg-August Universität Göttingen), Claudia Poschmann (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt), Philippe Schlenker (ENS, Paris), Sonja Tiemann (Eberhard-Karls Universität, Tübingen)

The goal of our workshop is to bring together researchers working on order effects arising from incremental interpretation, in particular in connection with presupposition projection and related phenomena, such as redundancy effects, epistemic modals, and anaphora, through theoretical, experimental, and/or cross-linguistic perspectives. Linguistic utterances are processed incrementally as they unfold, resulting in a temporal asymmetry between the information coming before and after in a given expression. But are the observed asymmetries merely a superficial aspect of language use, or do they play a direct role in linguistic knowledge and representations? This bears on the general issue of how linguistic knowledge and other cognitive faculties interact.
An important case study on potential order effects is that of presupposition. Traditional theories posit an asymmetry in the processing of presupposition: in particular, presuppositions must be supported by material that precedes the trigger, as in (1-a), not material that follows the trigger, as in (1-b):

  1. a. Mary used to come to class and she stopped coming to class.
    b. #Mary stopped coming to class and she used to come to class.

However, as theorists like Rothschild (2008) have pointed out, such contrasts may (in part) be due to independent factors, like redundancy constraints; likewise, as Schlenker (2008) has observed, they could reflect violable processing constraints rather than being hard-wired. The effect also may vary across connectives, e.g. they may differ for conjunction vs. disjunction vs. conditionals. Finally, data points such as (1) leave open whether linear order or hierarchical order is behind the effect. Thus, the issue of asymmetry in presupposition projection is far from resolved and calls for careful investigation, experimental and theoretical.
Various avenues have been pursued to account for projection and (apparent) asymmetries. Stalnaker (1974) put forth a pragmatic approach, based on the idea that presuppositions must be satisfied in their local context, which changes as an utterance unfolds from left to right. This accounts for the contrast in (1), as the context for the presupposition of stop in (1-a) (where it is in the second conjunct) includes the other conjunct, in contrast to (1-b). But more complex cases involving other connectives and quantifiers proved challenging for this view. In response, dynamic semantics, starting with Heim (1983) (and much following work, e.g. Chierchia, 1995, Beaver, 2001), implemented this idea in the semantics proper, by modeling meanings of expressions in terms of their potential to update the discourse context. This yielded a semantic account of projection in a wider range of environments, where projection asymmetries are directly encoded in the meanings of operators like conjunction. This latter aspect was later criticized by Heim (1990) and others for lacking explanatory power, as left-to-right asymmetries are simply stipulated in the system, rather than following from general features of the overall system. More recently, Schlenker (2008b, 2009) proposed a novel pragmatic approach combining the virtues of previous proposals. This has revived the debate between pragmatic and semantic approaches to projection, with new variants of both pragmatic approaches (Fox, 2008, 2012, George, 2008, Chemla, 2010, Mandelkern and Romoli, 2017, Romoli and Mandelkern, 2017, Romoli, 2015), and dynamic semantic ones (Rothschild, 2008, 2011, Chierchia, 2009).
Here are some examples of specific questions which we think remain (at least to some degree) open, and which we think would help address the deeper questions sketched above about the underlying nature of projection and (more broadly) asymmetry in natural language:

  • Does presupposition projection exhibit asymmetries once other factors, like redundancy, are controlled for? Can asymmetric constraints be overridden in certain cases (and if so, at what cost)?
  • Do asymmetry effects vary across connectives (e.g., and, but, or)?
  • Are (a-)symmetry effects related to processing complexity?
  • Do populations with processing challenges exhibit different (a-)symmetry effects in presupposition comprehension?
  • Is asymmetry rooted in linear order or hierarchical structure?

Parallel questions can, and should, be asked about redundancy effects, epistemic modals, anaphora and others. More in general, the domain of investigation we are focusing on here is how incremental processing interacts with different component of meanings.