Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Chemla and Spector: "Experimental Evidence for Embedded Scalar Implicatures" (2010)

I remember Benjamin Spector seeing speaking about this experiment at ESSLLI 2010. The paper argues that the sentence
  • Every student solved some problems 
has a so-called "localist" reading. A counterexample to such a localist reading is a student who solved no questions, or a student who solved all questions. The second option is the crucial one, since a strict Gricean model does not predict any implicatures that warrant this reading. Chemla and Spector claim that the localist reading is available, although not the dominant one.

Experimental Set-Up and Subject Responses

The empirical method that they employ in order to prove this involves some sentences and some drawings. The drawings show six letters, each surrounded by six circles. Each letter is connected to some number of the circles surrounding it, as in the following figure:


The relevant sentences were then of the following kind:
  • Every letter is connected with some of its circles
In particular, the question was how subjects evaluate such sentences when no letters are completely disconnected, and at least one letter is connected every circle. Will anyone judge the sentence to be false in that scenario?

However, instead of just asking their subjects this question (a methodology that has previously falsified the theory) they asked subjects to click somewhere on a bar connecting the word "Yes" and the word "No." With this methodology, subjects did indeed pick points closer to "No" when the drawing included some letters that were connected to all of their circles.

So it seems that when pushed, subjects do start to doubt whether the word "some" should be taken to mean "at least one" or "at least one and not all." Once they notice this ambiguity, they might become slightly more scared of giving an unequivocal "Yes" and consequently click somewhere lower on the scale.

Or to put it differently, as soon as the subjects start fearing that they are in some kind of polemic language game, they switch to a safer strategy by committing to less. So a localist reading is indeed available, and in some circumstances a possible claim inherent in the sentence.

Relevance Considerations

However, what really caught my eye on this second rereading of the paper was the comments that Chemla and Spector make about relevance while discussing possible experimental set-ups:
the local reading (‘every square is connected with some of the circles and not with all of them’) is relevant typically in a context in which we are interested in knowing, for each square, whether it is connected with some, all, or no circle. Such a context would for instance result from raising the following question: ‘Which squares are connected to which circles?’. (Section 2.2.2, page 365)
The globalist reading, one might add, would be the most relevant answer to the question Which sqaures are connected to some circles? The only counterexamples to the globalist reading consist of sqaures that are not connected to anything, as stated above.

The reason I find this comment interesting is that it connects the meaning of the sentence with the expectation of the subjects. Experimental materials place the subject in some particular role, and this implicitly suggests certain answers to the big question: What does he expect me to do with this question?

Chemla and Spector obviously embrace some kind of objectivist perspective on semantics, with sentences having grammatically determined meanings, and a clear division between grammar and pragmatics. But their sensitivity to the perspective of the subject is very commendable and opens up the possibility of founding the notion of meaning of the notion of social context.

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