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Acquisition of scalar implicatures

Anna VerBuk, University of Massachusetts Amherst


I explore first language acquisition of scalar implicatures as a class of meanings. I begin by proposing a question-under-discussion (QUD) account of scalar implicatures in which the role of Relevance in the generation of scalar implicatures is clearly articulated. Next, I propose an account of how the child constructs scales that SIs are based on, and suggest ways in which the child's semantic and pragmatic knowledge unrelated to scales, such as that of polarity, aids her in constructing scales. My experimental results did not support the theoretical distinction between Horn and pragmatic scales that is often made in the literature; I found that the time-line of the acquisition of SIs is governed not by this theoretical distinction between classes of scales but rather by the idiosyncratic challenges that individual scales pose. I provide experimental evidence and theoretical arguments in favor of the Context-based approach to SI computation on which SIs are computed by going through the steps of pragmatic reasoning, and against the Default approach on which SIs are computed by default. I found that children start out by computing SIs only in contexts where they are relevant, which is predicted on the Context-based but not on the Default approach. Another theme is the instantiation of Principle B in the child's grammar, which I consider in the context of how the child constructs scales of the form . SIs based on these scales rule out the coreference reading in Principle B environments (B-contexts). I argue that constructing these scales is a necessary step the child goes through in learning to interpret B-contexts and Exceptional Coreference Contexts and present an experiment on the two types of contexts. The overarching goal of this work is to show that picking up on oppositions between lexical items, and arriving at pragmatic and syntactic generalizations about these lexical items on the basis of these contrasts, is one of the major learning mechanisms involved in first language acquisition.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

VerBuk, Anna, "Acquisition of scalar implicatures" (2007). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3290054.