Matthew Brown (UCL) - 2018-19 Students

Coordination and scalar implicature in British Sign Language: a corpus-led pragmatic study

Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics concerned with the effects of context and inference on meaning. One class of pragmatic effects, well-studied in spoken languages but not in sign languages, is known as scalar implicature (SI). This is where a speaker using a weaker statement can be understood to be precluding a stronger version of the statement on the same “scale”, even when the stronger statement is not logically disallowed by the semantics of the weaker. For example, “Some of the food was delicious” is often understood to mean that not all of the food was delicious, even though it would be true that if it were all delicious then any subset of it must also be: the inferred meaning of “some” is enriched to “some but not all”. Another form of SI involves the coordinator “or” being enriched to “either but not both”.

I intend to firstly conduct a systematic analysis of quantifiers and the expression of conjunction and disjunction in the BSL Corpus. Existing documentation of conjunction and disjunction and their co-occurring non-manual features in sign languages is sparse. It is believed that several lexical items and non-lexicalised gestures have a coordinating function in BSL, but the interpretation of these as either conjunction or disjunction may depend on non-manual features, on additional qualifiers in the sentence (“both”, “maybe”), or on surrounding context. In other contexts, similar non-manual markers (e.g. brow movement) can contribute to marking of negation, conditionals or questions, grammatical constructs which have been shown to affect SI in spoken languages. This first stage of work will then provide a rigorous sample of natural language experimental input for a second experimental stage, designed to collect evidence on how native BSL users understand coordinator use in context and the pragmatic effects they derive from SIs in BSL compared to English.

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