University of Chicago
May 19-20, 2006
The ability to establish orderings among objects and make comparisons between
them according to the amount or degree to which they possess some gradable
property (such as height, brightness, beauty, etc.) is a basic component of
human cognition. Natural languages reflect this fact: all languages have
syntactic categories that express gradable concepts, and all languages have
constructions that are used to express comparisons between objects with respect
to gradable properties, measurement of such properties, and claims about the
degree to which such properties hold of an object. Adjectives like tall,
bright, beautiful and the constructions in which they appear (10
centimeters taller, extremely bright, as beautiful as a spring day in Rome,
etc.) are canonical examples of such expressions, and have formed the central
empirical domain for studies of scalar meaning in natural language.
A central conclusion of the research on these expressions over the past thirty
years is that the semantic component of human language must include mechanisms
for relating objects to abstract representations of measurement, or `scales'.
This conclusion gives rise to a number of important questions, central among
which are the following:
- What are the linguistically significant features of scalar
representations, and what factors determine the sort of scale that a given
linguistic expression uses?
- Do the scalar representations that have been claimed to underlie the
semantic properties of gradable adjectives play a role in the semantic analysis
of other grammatical categories?
The first question concerns the interaction between language and cognitive
representations: how can the semantic properties of linguistic expressions
that are used to convey scalar meaning be explained in terms of features of
scalar representations, and what principles determine the kind of
representation a particular expression is associated with? One of the core
semantic properties of a gradable adjective is whether it has a context
sensitive meaning or not. For example, large is highly context
sensitive: it is used to make very different claims about 'degree of size' in
large atom, large spider, large automobile, large city, large continent
and large planet. Full, however, is not context-sensitive: it is
used to make the same claim about 'degree of containment' in full
glass, full tank, and full reservoir. Recent work (by e.g., Rotstein and
Winter, Kennedy and McNally and others) has shown that this distinction correlates with a structural
feature of the measurement scale used by the adjective - whether it is open
(lacks endpoints) or closed (includes endpoints) - but the precise
explanation for this correlation remains open, as does the question of what
other features of scalar representations might be similarly important.
The second question addresses the broader role of scalar representations in
natural language semantics. Answering this question is important because
gradability is not just a property of adjectives, but of nouns, verbs, and
prepositions as well. This point is made quite clearly in several important
early studies of grading (in particular by Sapir and Bolinger), but it
has only recently begun to be addressed in depth and detail by contemporary
work in linguistic semantics.
In an effort to address these questions and to further advance our
understanding of the role of scalar representations in natural language
semantics, the Department of Linguistics at the University of Chicago
will host a Workshop on Scalar Meaning that will bring together a group of
researchers in linguistics and related fields (philosophy of language,
cognitive science) who are actively engaged in the investigation of these
issues, in a format that maximally supports interaction and discussion and the
development of new ideas.