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Negative polarity as scope marking

Dr. Chris Barker

Tuesday, October 11, 2016, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

New York University, Department of Linguistics

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What is the communicative value of negative polarity? That is, why do so many languages maintain a stock of special indefinites (Negative Polarity Items) that occur only in a proper subset of the contexts in which ordinary indefinites can appear? Previous answers include: marking the validity of downward inferences; marking the INvalidity of veridical inferences; and triggering strengthening implications. My starting point for exploring a new answer is the observation that an NPI must always take narrow scope with respect to its licensing operator. Of course, indefinites are notorious for taking wide scope. So whatever else NPIs may do, they at least serve as an utterly reliable signal that an indefinite is taking narrow scope. I will show that NPIs are only licensed in contexts in which the wide scope interpretation of an indefinite fails to entail its narrow scope interpretation. In other words, NPIs occur only in contexts in which signaling a narrow scope interpretation makes an important difference in interpretation. Part of the explanation for the ubiquity and robust stability of negative polarity is that they signal scope relations.

Dr. Chris Barker