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Pragmatic Inference and Semantic Development

Date and Time: 
Thursday, May 26, 2016. 03:30 PM - 05:00 PM
Meeting Location: 
Building 460, Room 126
Meeting Description: 
Speaker: David Barner is Associate Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at University of California San Diego
 
Meeting description: Building block theories of conceptual development propose that complex concepts are constructed in acquisition via the concatenation of simple, primitive, concepts. While providing a simple account of learning, the building block approach produces a nativist/empiricist impasse: Primitive building blocks that are simple enough to interact with perception are too simple to constitute parts of abstract concepts (e.g., of time, number, etc.); building blocks that are abstract enough to explain abstract concepts are too abstract to interface with perception. On analogy to Grice's appeal to pragmatics to enrich semantic theory, I argue that though semantic primitives support learning, the content of adult concepts also includes an inferential component, such that concepts are defined partly in terms of their inferential roles. Deepening this analogy, I argue that attested word learning mechanisms like "mutual exclusivity" and "the principle of contrast" are identical to the mechanism underlying pragmatic inferences described by Grice, like scalar implicature. To make this case, I show that word learning and conversational implicature have a similar, non-epistemic format and involve similar computations, relying similarly on access to alternatives. I conclude by arguing that words are learned via implicature-like inferences, and that their meanings continue to be defined in adulthood according to inferential roles, not building blocks alone.

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