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date: 25 June 2024

Polarity in the Semantics of Natural Languagelocked

Polarity in the Semantics of Natural Languagelocked

  • Anastasia GiannakidouAnastasia GiannakidouDepartment of Linguistics, University of Chicago

Summary

This paper provides an overview of polarity phenomena in human languages. There are three prominent paradigms of polarity items: negative polarity items (NPIs), positive polarity items (PPIs), and free choice items (FCIs). What they all have in common is that they have limited distribution: they cannot occur just anywhere, but only inside the scope of licenser, which is negation and more broadly a nonveridical licenser, PPIs, conversely, must appear outside the scope of negation. The need to be in the scope of a licenser creates a semantic and syntactic dependency, as the polarity item must be c-commanded by the licenser at some syntactic level. Polarity, therefore, is a true interface phenomenon and raises the question of well-formedness that depends on both semantics and syntax.

Nonveridical polarity contexts can be negative, but also non-monotonic such as modal contexts, questions, other non-assertive contexts (imperatives, subjunctives), generic and habitual sentences, and disjunction. Some NPIs and FCIs appear freely in these contexts in many languages, and some NPIs prefer negative contexts. Within negative licensers, we make a distinction between classically and minimally negative contexts. There are no NPIs that appear only in minimally negative contexts.

The distributions of NPIs and FCIs crosslinguistically can be understood in terms of general patterns, and there are individual differences due largely to the lexical semantic content of the polarity item paradigms. Three general patterns can be identified as possible lexical sources of polarity. The first is the presence of a dependent variable in the polarity item—a property characterizing NPIs and FCIs in many languages, including Greek, Mandarin, and Korean. Secondly, the polarity item may be scalar: English any and FCIs can be scalar, but Greek, Korean, and Mandarin NPIs are not. Finally, it has been proposed that NPIs can be exhaustive, but exhaustivity is hard to precisely identify in a non-stipulative way, and does not characterize all NPIs. NPIs that are not exhaustive tend to be referentially vague, which means that the speaker uses them only if she is unable to identify a specific referent for them.

Subjects

  • Linguistic Theories
  • Semantics

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