November 11, 16-17.30 h.,Erasmusbuilding 14.01

Henriëtte de Swart, Utrecht University
Form and meaning of negation in natural language: a bidirectional OT approach

Abstract: Negation and negative indefinite pronouns raise well-known problems for the principle of compositionality of meaning. In English, a sentence like 'Nobody said nothing' gets a double negation reading, represented as ¬¬∃x∃y Say(x,y). In Spanish, a so-called negative concord language, a comparable sentence like 'Nadie miraba a nadie' gets a single negation reading, represented as ¬∃x∃y See(x,y). A French sentence like 'Personne n'a rien dit' is ambiguous between a single and a double negation reading. These observations have puzzled linguists for a long time, and many different analyses of negative concord have been proposed in the literature. In this contribution, we will approach the question from the point of view of optimality theory. We will adopt a bi-directional version of optimality theory that calculates the optimal form for a given meaning, and the optimal meaning for a given form on the basis of a ranking of violable constraints. The ranking of the constraints can vary from one language to the next.

We define three basic constraints that handle the marking and interpretation of negation: MaxNeg (mark arguments of a negative chain), *Neg (avoid negation in the output), and InterpretNeg (interpret negative expressions as contributing a negation). We will see that concord languages adopt the ranking MaxNeg >> *Neg >> interpretNeg in order to mark all arguments of a negative chain by means of n-words, but still obtain a single negation reading for the clause as a whole. Languages like English crucially rank InterpretNeg >> *Neg, so that multiple negative expresssions lead to double negation readings.

The marker of sentential negation plays a special role in many concord languages. We will provide additional support for the claim made by de Swart and Sag (2002) that the marker of sentential negation does not really play a role in the semantics of negative concord. We will define additional constraints NegFirst (negation must be preverbal) and MaxSN (a negative clause must contain a marker of sentential negation) that play a role in the generation of negative sentences in a concord system, but that do not affect the interpretation of these sentences.

The semantics colloquium is scheduled on Tuesdays from 16.00 - 17.30 and is held twice a month. Meetings take place at the Department of Philosophy, Erasmus building, Erasmusplein 1, Nijmegen (room 14.01 unless announced otherwise). The focus of the colloquium is on natural language semantics in a broad sense. Its aim is to bring together people with an interest in, or working on semantics from a linguistic, philosophical or cognitive point of view.

The semantics colloquium presents two series. In the general series experts from different disciplines present general surveys of of recent developments relating to natural language semantics. These talks are meant to be accessible for a general audience of non-specialists. In the research series specialists present recent research results.

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