Friday, February 16: Carlos Cisneros

Please join us this Friday as Carlos Cisneros from the Linguistics Department presents more work on indiscrimnacy.

Date and time: Friday, February 16, 11:00 a.m. – 12:50 p.m.

Location: Stuart 209 (Philosophy seminar room)

Title: Dissecting indiscriminacy (and free chioce)


Indiscriminatives (depreciatives in Haspelmath 1997) are a crosslinguistic class of indefinite equivalent in meaning to English ‘just any’.  Haspelmath observed their strong relationship to free choice items crosslinguistically, calling them ‘semantic enrichments [of free choice meaning] by implicature’.  They are often derived from free choice items by means of special intonation and/or minor morpho-syntactic modification.  They are characteristically defined by their interaction with negation, which results in the denial that the indiscriminative’s restrictor serves as a sufficient condition for satisfaction of some predicate by an individual.

(1) It’s not that just any horror film should get nominated for an award.

In (1), the speaker denies that the predicate should get nominated for an award is satisfied by merely having the condition of being a horror film.  In this denial, the speaker also asserts that an individual must have some other quality besides being a horror film, thereby representing some proper subset of horror films yet to be suggested.  To my knowledge, there is no attempt in the literature to develop a semantic/pragmatic account of indiscriminative meaning.

The difficulty of approaching an semantic treatment of indiscriminative meaning is tied to the problem of free choice item semantics.  Outside of negation, both classes of items display the properties of anti-episodicity (aversion to episodic environments) and quantificational variability (a modal form of universal quantification which favors distributive over collective readings) (Giannakidou 2001).  There is a large literature on the semantics of free choice items, especially any, with much debate about their most proper, general treatment (Dayal 1998; Menendez-Benito 2010; Chierchia 2013; among many others).  But most of these approaches have neglected early insights that relate the meaning of free choice items to a greater systematic phenomenon in language.  Fauconnier (1975) noted the meaning similarity between any and the quantifying superlatives of English.  Konig (1991) later noted that quantifying superlatives are anti-episodic, in the same vein as free choice items.  Although it has not yet been discussed, quantifying superlatives also display quantificational variability and a strong resemblance to indiscrimatives while under negation.  Therefore, the meaning of free choice items, their link to indiscriminatives, and a larger set of phenomena including quantifying superlatives should result from a common set of semantic principles.

In this talk, I will draw on further data from my studies on minimal sufficiency just (Coppock & Beaver 2014) to argue that free choice items and quantifying superlatives both involve minimal sufficiency scales.  These are scalar inferences similar to downward entailment in which propositional strength is ranked according to the sufficiency of alternative individuals in their satisfaction of the same predicate.  Free choice items and quantifying superlatives both assert the truth of the strongest proposition, entailing the truth of all weaker propositions.  Free choice items additionally involve a mechanism for making subdomain alternatives accessible to minimal sufficiency scales.  The two primary options for this mechanism are reanalysis of NPIs as presupposing minimal sufficiency scales, or derivation of free choice items by means of ‘non-specific free relative clauses’ (Haspelmath 1997, 1995).  I will demonstrate how the two mechanisms work with minimal sufficiency scales to derive the meanings and distributions of both free choice any and Cuevas Mixtec free choice items.  The major payoff of this approach is how simply a semantics of indiscriminatives follows from it.   Indiscriminative meaning is free choice meaning as it is made available to negation (by focus), thereby denying the truth of the strongest proposition on a minimal sufficiency scale.

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