Chapter published in:Mass and Count in Linguistics, Philosophy, and Cognitive Science
Edited by Friederike Moltmann
[Language Faculty and Beyond 16] 2020
► pp. 159–190
Lexical, syntactic, and pragmatic sources of countability
An experimental exploration of the mass-count distinction
In this chapter, we suggest that the meanings of mass and count nouns result from the interaction of three components of language - lexical roots, syntax, and pragmatic inference. We begin by providing a brief history of early work on the mass-count distinction, and show how the experimental literature gradually converged on the idea that the mass-count distinction is rooted in quantification, rather than in the object/substance distinction. Next, we review experimental evidence suggesting that the mass-count distinction is asymmetric, such that although children and adults expect count nouns to denote individuals, they think that mass nouns can denote a wider range of phenomena including objects, substances, and actions (whether individuated or not). Based on these data, we propose a model in which count syntax takes unindividuated semantic representations as input, and specifies quantification over countable individuals, while mass syntax leaves the measuring dimension up to individual semantic representations, such that some nouns quantify according to mass/volume, while others are lexically specified for individuation and thus quantify according to number. Finally, we suggest that although syntax and lexical semantic representations help determine whether a noun denotes countable individuals, they do not specify which countable individuals they denote. Drawing on evidence from young children's surprising failures in countIng object pieces as whole objects, we propose that nouns themselves do not encode full conceptual criteria for individuation, but instead encode partial criteria that are filled out pragmatically, by contrasting alternative descriptions of objects and their parts.
Keywords: individuation, countability, language development, conceptual development, pragmatics
Published online: 17 December 2020
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