Speaker: Sherry Yong Chen (MIT Linguistics)
Title: The linguistics of one, two, three
The interpretation of number words in context is of interest not only to linguists, but also logicians, psychologists, and computer scientists. In this talk, we will discuss some theoretical and developmental questions related to the linguistics of English numerals.
Bare numerals (e.g. two, three) present an interesting puzzle to semantic and pragmatic theories, as they seem to vary between several different interpretations: ‘at least n’, ‘exactly n’, and sometimes even ‘at most n’. We will examine how the availability of a particular interpretation seems to depend on the interaction between linguistic structure and contextual factors, and discuss three approaches that try to capture the relationship between these interpretations.
Turning to the acquisition of bare numerals, developmental research suggests that preschoolers by the age of 5 are able to access ’non-exactly' interpretations of a bare numeral in contexts where these interpretations are licensed, just like adult speakers. A natural hypothesis for this is that the knowledge of the full range of interpretations may come through a prior understanding of the meaning of explicit expressions such as ‘at least/at most’ in English. This turns out to be questionable, however, since it is also shown that 5-year-olds haven’t yet acquired the meaning of the expressions at least and at most yet. Time permitting, we will end with a discussion about what all this means for the development of numerical concept and/or language development in general.