The Determinacy Scale: A Competition Mechanism for Anaphoric Expressions
CitationAhn, Dorothy. 2019. The Determinacy Scale: A Competition Mechanism for Anaphoric Expressions. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractReference is a core property of language. In any given language, a number of expressions can be used to refer to new and familiar entities. This dissertation is concerned with the expressions that refer to familiar entities in a discourse. I explore a competition-based analysis, where the interpretation and the distribution of an anaphoric expression is determined by the presence of other anaphoric expressions in a given language. This competition mechanism makes use of semantically primitive properties such as meeting the phi-features that are composed into denotations that are universally available for anaphoric expressions. These denotations are lexicalized in language-specific ways. I argue that the denotations are then ordered by semantic strength, deriving a scale of anaphoric expressions. Given this scale, I propose an economy principle that chooses the least informative in a given context when multiple expressions successfully resolve to the intended referent.
The main theoretical advantage of the competition mechanism proposed in this dissertation is that a single mechanism can be applied to a wide range of overt and covert expressions across languages. I show how the mechanism can be used to derive various phenomena involving covert pronouns such as PRO and null pro, definite descriptions, demonstratives, as well as the use of abstract space in sign languages, thus unifying separate principles that have been proposed in previous literature. Moreover, because the competition is not a primitive principle but a phenomenon fully derived from semantic denotations, we are able to make specific predictions based on the mapping between semantics and morphology. Empirically, the theory can account for exceptions to principles that have been proposed in previous literature in a constrained way. The mechanism makes very concrete a number of accommodation processes that conversation participants would make use of to interpret sentences that violate the economy principle. These processes make use of existing theories of focus and presupposition accommodations, and allow some level of exceptional behavior of anaphoric expressions (for example, a definite description being used in an anaphoric context where a pronoun would have been sufficiently informative) but with specific predictions on how it would be constrained.
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