Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speakers: Julia Kolkmann (University of York) and Ingrid Lossius Falkum (University of Oslo)

Title: The pragmatics of possession

Abstract: English pre-nominal possessives (N’s N) express a relation between two nominals, e.g. kinship (John’s sister), time (yesterday’s newspaper), control (John’s car) and many others given that this relation is contingent upon context. However, the degree to which the linguistic context overtly explicates this relation varies from utterance to utterance, ranging from low-information contexts (e.g. John walked into the pub. His coat was white from the snow.) to contexts which are far more telling (e.g. John is a first-time author. His book has been a great success). Given that possessive interpretation is a non-issue from a communicative point of view, the question arises where the possessive relation originates from: is it provided by the (linguistic or extra-linguistic) context, does it come from the semantics of the head noun, or do we need to appeal to both?

The locus of the possessive relation has been a matter of contention among formal semanticists on the one hand (e.g. Barker 1995, Vikner & Jensen 2002) and cognitively-oriented pragmaticists (e.g. Sperber & Wilson 1986/1995, Blakemore 2002, Aitken 2009) on the other: where semantic accounts often argue in favour of a default semantics for pre-nominal possessives and thus predict a rather minor contribution of the context, pragmatic accounts converge on the idea of an underspecified semantics enriched by means of a pragmatic process that operates over decoded linguistic meanings and sets of contextually available assumptions.

In this paper, we present the results of a corpus analysis of 3,000 pre-nominal possessive NPs which were analysed in terms of what kind of relation they expressed and how much contextual explication each relation received. Based on the results, we propose an account where salient possessive relations are derived mainly by pragmatic means. Semantically, a pre-nominal possessive NP encodes a highly underspecified relation from which the contextually appropriate reading is computed on the basis of accessible encyclopaedic or situational knowledge as well as the surrounding linguistic context. This approach has the advantage of accounting uniformly not for only possessive interpretations in high-information contexts but also for readily available interpretations in low-information contexts.

This talk is based on Kolkmann and Falkum's 2020 paper entitled The pragmatics of possession: A corpus study of English prenominal possessives.


Seminars are organised by the meaning and grammar research group.

Meaning and grammar research group

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Mar 16 2021 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2021-03-16: The pragmatics of possession

Online via link invitation