Alternative approaches to alternatives

Richard Breheny (UCL), Paul Marty (UCL), Jacopo Romoli (Ulster University/University of Bergen), Uli Sauerland (ZAS Berlin), and Yasutada Sudo (UCL)

Time and venue:
as a satellite workshop of Sinn und Bedeutung 2020, UCL, London (cancelled because of the covid-19 pandemic)

Invited speakers:
Stavroula Alexandropoulou, Emmanuel Chemla (ENS), Anamaria Fălăuş (CNRS), Michael Franke (Pro^3, Osnabrück), Nicole Gotzner (SiGames, ZAS Berlin), Roni Katzir (Tel Aviv University), Marie-Christine Meyer (LISI, ZAS Berlin)

Scalar Implicatures (SIs) are the single most studied phenomena in recent semantics/pragmatics research – not only in linguistics but also psycholinguistics, developmental psychology, philosophy and computational linguistics. There is a growing recognition that SIs play a role in people’s understanding of the meaning of a wide range of linguistic constructions across the world’s languages. Such constructions include the plural, questions, tense and temporal adverbials, quantifiers, connectives and much more. It is thus a fundamental mechanism humans use to derive meaning from the languages they speak. In addition, it is a common assumption in the literature that deriving a scalar implicature involves alternatives. This idea is supported by the findings of several behavioural studies which have focused on the differences between children and adults in their ability to compute alternatives (Guasti et al. 2005, Barner et al. 2011, Tieu, et al. 2014, 2016, 2017, Hochstein et al. 2016 among others) as well as by the empirical and predictive power of the theoretical proposals enumerated above. Yet many of these proposals rely on assumptions about the space of alternatives relative to a word or linguistic construction and thus they depend on a general theory of how alternatives are generated and selected for the computation of SIs.

However, developing such a theory has proven to be non-trivial. In particular, the central unsolved issue is the so-called “Symmetry problem” (Fox 2007, Fox & Katzir 2011, Katzir 2007, 2014, Kroch 1972 among others). There are several recent approaches to this problem, among which are the structural theory of alternatives (Katzir, 2007, Fox & Katzir, 2011, Trinh & Haida 2016), the Bayesian, Rational Speech Act (RSA) approach (see Frank & Goodman, 2016; Bergen et al. 2016) and the more recent conceptual alternatives approach by Buccola et al. (2018). These approaches have in common the idea that alternatives are selected on the basis of complexity or cost. Yet it has been argued that complexity is insufficient by itself to explain more complex cases of the symmetry problem (Breheny et al 2017, Trinh 2018 among others for discussion). As of today, the symmetry problem still remains an important challenge for theories of alternatives and consequently for theories of scalar implicatures: as soon as we move away from the basic case of“some”, none of the approaches available in the literature appears to be able to account for all the various data points involving symmetry.

Finally, alternatives have been used to account for various other phenomena beyond scalarity, e.g. focus, polarity items, and Maximise Presuppositions-like inferences. Two main questions are relevant in this respect: First, how do those different alternatives interact with each other (Sudo and Spector 2017, Marty and Romoli 2019, Anvari 2018)? And, second, can at least some of those be treated in a unified fashion (e.g. Chierchia 2013 for a unified approach to scalar implicatures and polarity items, Fox and Katzir 2009 for a unification of focus and scalar alternative, Magri 2010 and Marty 2017 for a unified treatment of implicatures and Maximise Presuppositions-like inferences)?