Linguistics Colloquium: Susan Rothstein

22/11/2016 - 14:00 - 15:30

Susan Rothstein, Bar-Ilan University/Tübingen University

Title: Counting and measuring: the evidence from ‘furniture’

Abstract: Object mass nouns like furniture and footwear have long been a topic for linguistic debate. While they have the morphosyntactic properties of mass nouns, they intuitively denote sets of individuable entities. Rothstein 2010, Schwarzschild 2011 show that grammatical operations such as adjectival modification are sensitive to the apparently atomic structure of these predicates, while  Barner and Snedeker (2005) show experimentally that that comparisons such as who has more furniture? typically are answered by comparing cardinalities. On this basis they suggest that object mass nouns have essentially the same denotations as count nouns. In the first part of the talk, I will show that the conclusions drawn by Barner and Snedeker (2005) are too strong: while comparisons of object mass nouns may involve comparing cardinalities, they need not do so. This allows us to draw a distinction between object mass nouns and count nouns: count nouns require comparison by cardinality while object mass nouns allow this, but also allow comparisons along other, continuous dimensions. I will support this with elicited data from English, Brazilian Portuguese, Hungarian and Mandarin.

This means that object mass nouns and count nouns must have different semantic denotations, contra e.g. Bale and Barner (2009). But whatever semantics we give for object mass and count nouns, we need to answer the obvious question: If object mass nouns are not countable, how can they be compared in terms of cardinality? In the second part of the talk, I offer a solution to this problem, proposing that there are cardinality scales, which allow us to evaluate and compare quantities in terms of their perceived or estimated number of atomic parts without actually counting the atoms. This allows us to clarify the distinction between counting and measuring, and to maintain the general principle that only count nouns have countable denotations.


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