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How to give a complete answer to any question (talk recording available)
Dr. David Beaver
Tuesday, March 03, 2015, 01:00pm - 02:00pm
University of Texas at Austin, Departments of Linguistics and Philosophy and Director of the Cognitive Science Program
When and why do people use a clefted sentence like “It’s you I’m dreaming of” rather than the canonical “I’m dreaming of you”? More generally, what is the function and meaning of clefts and cleft-like sentences across languages? I argue that clefts are best understood within a view of discourse context centering on the Question Under Discussion. Clefts make explicit what aspect of the content is at-issue by marking which wh-question is being answered. In this case, the question is “Who am I dreaming of?” I claim that clefts have a specific discourse function: indicating that a proposition provides a complete answer. This explains the well-known exhaustivity implications that clefts carry: from “It’s you I’m dreaming of” we would conclude, among other things, that the speaker is not dreaming of anyone else. A traditional view of meaning centering on truth-conditions cannot easily account for inferential effects associated with cleft constructions and certainly would not account for the complex interactions between clefts and intonational focus. In contrast, I will argue that the proposal I will present, which integrates truth-conditional semantics and discourse functional pragmatics, can account for both inferential and focus effects. I will back the proposal up with experimental data from English, Hungarian, French, and German. This data makes clear the information status of the different parts of the meaning that clefted sentences convey.