Job talk by Suzi Lima, 2/5

This week, our department will be visited by a job candidate, Suzi Lima (UofT). Below, you can find the abstract for her talk, with details about location and time.

On the acquisition of object denoting nouns

Suzi Lima, University of Toronto, Wilson Hall WPRoom 3:30pm.

In classical theories of countability, the minimal elements in the extension of count nouns are atoms, and the material parts of these atoms are not themselves part of the extension of the nouns (cf. Link 1983, Chierchia 1998, 2010 among many others). According to these theories, grammatical atomicity (what counts as an atom for purposes of counting in language) is strongly associated with natural atomicity (what constitutes as an individual of the kind described by a noun). Against this view, Rothstein (2010) argues that natural atomicity is neither required nor necessary for grammatical counting. Rothstein (2010) argues that atoms can be contextually defined. That is, count nouns like fence, wall and bouquet denote “different sets of atoms depending on the context of interpretation”. For example, what counts as a wall-atom in a particular context (the four wall-sides of a castle that we can consider as ‘a wall’) might not count as a wall-atom in a different context (the north wall of a castle, which we can also name as ‘a wall’). Empirical facts across languages provide ample evidence that discrete individuals are not necessarily countable (see object mass nouns such as furniture in English) and that nouns that denote substances are not necessarily uncountable (cf. Mathieu 2012, Lima 2014 among many others). Such evidence suggests a strong dissociation between natural and semantic atomicity. Given this debate, the question we intend to address in this talk is whether the conceptual content of a noun and natural atomicity bias how units of individuation are determined. More specifically, we are investigating whether contextually determined individuals, more specifically, partitions of discrete individuals, can be considered as atoms.

Acquisition of countability The debate about whether the conceptual content of a noun determines how atoms are determined in grammar is a topic of interest for both formal semantics and developmental psychology studies. A series of studies in developmental psychology suggests that although the lexical content of nouns plays a role in the identification of atoms in their extensions (Carey, 2009; Macnamara, 1986; Xu, 2007), natural atomicity is not required for grammatical counting. Acquisition studies suggest that until 7 years of age children count parts of individuals of a certain kind (e.g. pieces of forks) as if they were themselves individuals of that kind (e.g. individual forks; cf. Shipley and Shepperson 1990). Srinivasan et al. (2013) replicate these results and in addition have shown that children cease to treat parts of individuals as whole individuals once they recognize that (pseudo)partitive constructions (e.g. “piece of”) and measure phrases are more informative descriptions for parts of objects.

Proposal First, we argue that a proper semantic analysis of aforementioned acquisition facts require the adoption of a theory of countability in which not only natural atoms but also their material parts belong to the extension of count nouns. To illustrate, both a whole banana and a piece of a banana belong to the extension of the noun “banana”. Secondly, we argue in favor of a blocking mechanism that prevents speakers to refer to parts of individuals using an unmodified count noun when pseudopartitive constructions or measure phrases are available to refer to these parts. Evidence for this mechanism will be based on three experimental studies with speakers of Yudja, a Tupi language spoken in Brazil that has low frequency (pseudo)partitive constructions and no measure phrases.

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