On 2 July Stavroula Alexandropoulou (Utrecht Institute of Linguistics OTS) will defend her PhD thesis On the pragmatics of numeral modifiers: The availability and time course of variation, ignorance and indifference inferences.
Languages have a quite large inventory of expressions to refer to an imprecise quantity such as n ≥ 4. In English, for instance, this quantity can be described by the expressions '4 or more', 'at least 4', 'more than 3', 'minimally 4', 'over 3', etc. Do all these expressions actually convey the exact same meaning? No. Some of them, i.e., 'at least 4', '4 or more', 'minimally 4' (vs. 'more than 3', 'over 3'), have been found to additionally convey speaker ignorance effects and these effects are pragmatic in nature.
This dissertation probes experimentally speaker ignorance effects as well as two other types of meaning, i.e., variation effects and speaker indifference effects, by looking at the off-line and the real-time comprehension of utterances with two distinct kinds of numeral modifiers, represented by `at least' and `more than'.
Core meaning and pragmatic meaning
The aim is to find out where one should draw the dividing line between the core meaning and the pragmatic meaning of each kind of modifiers, and how different these two are, with a main focus on their pragmatics. Experimental data reveal that all three types of inference are available with both 'at least' and 'more than', but they become available to a different extent, and are non-obligatory, context- dependent pragmatic inferences. These findings point to an account where the inferences of 'at least' and 'more than' come about through different pragmatic routes.
This thesis shows that the differences between superlative ('at least') and comparative ('more than') modifiers are not about the availability or absence of certain types of inference as has been claimed for a long time in the relevant literature. It rather reveals that there are more nuanced differences between the two types of modifier: they both trigger the same pragmatic inferences but they do so to a different extent. It is thus concluded that pragmatic theory has to be more fine-grained in order to capture these subtle differences.