What Exactly do Numbers Mean?
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CitationHuang, Yi Ting, Elizabeth Spelke, and Jesse Snedeker. 2013. “What Exactly Do Numbers Mean?” Language Learning and Development 9 (2) (April): 105–129. doi:10.1080/15475441.2012.658731.
AbstractNumber words are generally used to refer to the exact cardinal value of a set, but cognitive scientists disagree about their meanings. Although most psychological analyses presuppose that numbers have exact semantics (two means exactly two), many linguistic accounts propose that numbers have lower-bounded semantics (at least two), and that speakers restrict their reference through a pragmatic inference (scalar implicature). We address this debate through studies of children who are in the process of acquiring the meanings of numbers. Adults and 2- and 3-year-olds were tested in a novel paradigm that teases apart semantic and pragmatic aspects of interpretation (the covered box task). Our findings establish that when scalar implicatures are cancelled in the critical trials of this task, both adults and children consistently give exact interpretations for number words. These results, in concert with recent work on real-time processing, provide the first unambiguous evidence that number words have exact semantics.
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