Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Brian Buccola (Michigan State University)

Title: Conceptual alternatives

Abstract: When it comes to semantic interpretation in natural language, what we *don't* say matters. For example, in saying "Al is a fine student", we may convey that Al is not an outstanding student; if he were, we would have used the alternative sentence "Al is an outstanding student". Thus, inferences arise by competition among alternative utterances. But how such inferences arise is an unsolvable problem, unless a theory of alternatives specifies what counts, among all the things that have not been said. It is usually assumed that alternatives are generated by manipulating what was actually said, e.g. by replacing one word ("fine") with another ("outstanding"). We present a number of arguments for going beyond this powerful idea. In doing so, we argue that the level of words is not the right level of analysis for alternatives. Instead, we argue that the relation between words and alternatives is more indirect, and that alternatives are not linguistic objects in the traditional sense. Rather, we propose that competition in language is better seen as primarily determined by general reasoning preferences, or conceptual (thought) preferences (preferences that may have forged the lexicons of modern languages in the first place). We propose that such non-linguistic preferences can be measured and that these measures can be used to explain linguistic competition, non-linguistically, and more in depth.

(Joint work with Manuel Križ and Emmanuel Chemla; full paper available:


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Henry Conklin

Centre for Language Evolution

Feb 02 2021 -

Language evolution seminar

2021-02-02: Conceptual alternatives

Online via link invitation