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The Role of Alternatives in Language

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Many linguistic utterances convey meaning that is not expressed directly but has to be inferred, for instance, utterances may evoke alternatives to the expressed content. In counterfactuals, this is explicit: The utterance “If I were rich, I would buy a yacht” juxtaposes the counterfactual (= false) ...

Many linguistic utterances convey meaning that is not expressed directly but has to be inferred, for instance, utterances may evoke alternatives to the expressed content. In counterfactuals, this is explicit: The utterance “If I were rich, I would buy a yacht” juxtaposes the counterfactual (= false) proposition I am rich and the factual (= true) proposition I am not rich. Negation is another case point: “He doesn't smoke” evokes the alternative “He smokes.” Some psycholinguistic theories of negation even assume that in order to understand a negated sentence, the non-negated situation has to be simulated first.

There are linguistic phenomena where more than one alternative proposition is relevant for the interpretation of an utterance. For instance, the meaning of a question has been described as the set of all possible or true answers to the question. So the meaning of the wh-question “Who laughed?” is the set of (true) alternative propositions {Pete laughed, Mary laughed, John laughed…}.

The example of wh-questions shows that alternative propositions can be alternatives to each other because a semantic object that is part of the semantics of an utterance, has alternatives, i.e. Mary, Pete John, etc. This observation is important for many linguistic phenomena and their analysis, such as focus and scalar implicatures. For instance, in the influential Alternative Semantics analysis of focus, every sentence has an ordinary and also a focus semantic meaning, which is the set of propositions derived by replacing the focused element in the original sentence with alternatives of the same semantic type. Scalar implicatures involve a special set of alternatives. In utterances with a scalar expression like “some”, the elements of the alternative set are ordered on a scale {no, some, many, all}.

Alternatives have not only been shown to be highly relevant for the linguistic analysis of all the above and similar phenomena. In recent years, psycholinguistic research has shown that alternatives are also relevant during processing. For instance, alternatives are more readily available in lexical decision tasks than the same words when they are not alternatives in the given context, and they are more easily remembered.

In linguistic and psycholinguistic investigations of alternatives, individual researchers usually concentrate on one of the above-mentioned phenomena in one particular type of model. We believe that our understanding of alternatives can be advanced significantly by pooling findings and models for different phenomena. We invite contributions that use quantitative data (experimental/corpus) to address theoretical/modelling questions concerning alternatives in linguistics and/or psycholinguistics. Contributions addressing the issue of alternatives in a cross-phenomenon fashion are particularly welcome. Possible research questions include but are not restricted to the size and content of the alternative sets, potential orderings of the set members; the time course of the activation of alternatives during processing and the nature of that activation process (mandatory or strategic).


Keywords: Alternatives, Negation, Questions, Focus, Implicatures


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