Cross-linguistic scope ambiguity: When two systems meet

Abstract

Accurately recognizing and resolving ambiguity is a hallmark of linguistic ability. English is a language with scope ambiguities in doubly-quantified sentences like A shark ate every pirate; this sentence can either describe a scenario with a single shark eating all of the pirates, or a scenario with many sharks—a potentially-different one eating each pirate. In Mandarin Chinese, the corresponding sentence is unambiguous, as it can only describe the single-shark scenario. We present experimental evidence to this effect, comparing native speakers of English with native speakers of Mandarin in their interpretations of doubly-quantified sentences. Having demonstrated the difference between these two languages in their ability for inverse scope interpretations, we then probe the robustness of the grammar of scope by extending our experiments to English-dominant adult heritage speakers of Mandarin. Like native speakers of Mandarin, heritage Mandarin speakers lack inverse scope in Mandarin. Crucially, these speakers also lack inverse scope in English, their dominant language in adulthood. We interpret these results as evidence for the pressure to simplify the grammar of scope, decreasing ambiguity when possible. In other words, when two systems meet—as in the case of heritage speakers—the simpler system prevails.

This article is part of the special collection: Quantifier Scope

Keywords

scope ambiguity, English, Mandarin Chinese, heritage speakers, language contact

How to Cite

Scontras, G. & Polinsky, M. & Tsai, C. & Mai, K., (2017) “Cross-linguistic scope ambiguity: When two systems meet”, Glossa: a journal of general linguistics 2(1): 36. doi: https://doi.org/10.5334/gjgl.198

Download

Download PDF

1623

Views

1027

Downloads

15

Citations

Share

Authors

Gregory Scontras (University of California, Irvine)
Maria Polinsky (University of Maryland)
C.-Y. Edwin Tsai (City University of Hong Kong)
Kenneth Mai (Harvard University)

Download

Issues

Publication details

Dates

Licence

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0

Identifiers

Peer Review

This article has been peer reviewed.

File Checksums (MD5)

  • PDF: 1cccc22be2536bb223cb50e98cb92158