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Jon Ander Mendia
Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society for the Humanities and Department of Linguistics
- Society for the Humanities
The Grammar of Ignorance
Non-linguistic aspects of cognition bear in various ways on the ways we manipulate and interpret symbols in natural language. My research aims at deepening our understanding of this interaction by asking how the labor of natural language understanding is divvied up between grammar and other cognitive abilities. At Cornell I will be working in particular on the division of labor between grammar and inferential reasoning. To gain a full understanding of language and language use in communication, we need a “science of the unsaid”: a rigorous theory of how and when what is not said affects what is said in order to enrich its meaning. My empirical focus will be on expressions of language that signal uncertainty or ignorance about the information conveyed (e.g. expressions like at least in "Liz read at least two books", which communicates speaker ignorance about the exact number of books read by Liz). Central to understanding these expressions is the identification of the set of relevant alternative sentences that speakers chose not to say. This “unsaid” serves to the listener to infer in a deductive manner the reasons that may have driven the speaker to make the choice she made, resulting in an enhancement of the original message, to the effect that the speaker does not know whether the unsaid alternatives are true. Our ability as language users to converge during this type of reasoning suggests that we all consider and reason over the same or similar enough set of unsaid alternatives. The universality of these types of inferences, moreover, is consistent with the reasoning process resting on domain general cognitive skills that we recruit also in our use of natural language.