Experimental Investigations of Semantic-Pragmatic Inferences

Description : A 30 Month AHRC-Funded Project


The programme of research proposed in this application has two main objectives. First, we aim to empirically investigate whether widespread intuitive assumptions in the semantics/pragmatic interface actually enjoy psycholinguistic validity. Since groundbreaking work in the 70s, certain fundamental assumptions on scalar implicatures and presuppositions are uncontroversially adopted by theories of semantics and pragmatics. These assumptions are based on reflective judgments and introspection. Our research programme's first goal is to test whether these assumptions that are the building blocks of all major linguistic theories are empirically supported. Evidence that these assumptions are not psychologically valid would be of direct impact to semantics and pragmatics as it will require a totally different class of theories than the ones currently available in order to account for the data.

The second aim of this programme is to contribute to the current landscape of linguistic theorising by testing theoryspecific hypotheses that are not amenable to reflective judgment and introspection. Current theories on semantics and pragmatics adhere to three basic modes of explanation: Grammatical, Pragmatic-Semantic, Pragmatic. These models have developed quite sophisticated and elaborate predictions on the defaultness by which implicatures are generated and presuppositions are accommodated as well as the degree of context- and structure- dependency of these inferences. The hypotheses concerning generating implicatures and accommodating presuppositions are too finegrained to be amenable to introspection. At this level of sophistication the only relevant data can be offered by empirical investigations on the processing of these inferences in real time that measure reading and reaction time and accuracy in time windows that are less than a second. Thus, our programme's second aim is to produce theory-critical data by employing standardised behavioural methodologies of experimental psychology that have not been applied to semantics and pragmatics before.

Overall, this research will contribute to building a body of theory-neutral experimentally generated data on implicatures and presuppositions. Crucially, it will also put to test the major current theories of semantics and pragmatics that aim to account for these inferences in a unified way. Finally, by doing so, our research programme will also bring a more thorough linguistic insight into psycholinguistic research that has tended to investigate issues in core grammar, syntax, phonology and morphology, but neglect semantic and pragmatic issues on the interpretation of grammatical constructions.