PhD Project 18
Processing vague expressions: The interplay between semantics, pragmatics and cognition
A vague term like `big' can be easily used and processed when there is a clear gap between bigger and smaller objects. We will test the hypothesis that a gap in distribution is the default criterion used in the processing of vague words in classificatory tasks, but that other criteria might also come into play. Secondly, we will test whether a similar default exists for the processing of quantity expressions like `most' (use the approximate number system if there is a gap, and precise counting otherwise). The ultimate goal is a unified theory of the processing of vague expressions.
The project involves a novel combination of disciplines, namely empirical linguistics and philosophical logic with experimental psychology. The investigation of vague expressions will give new insights on how these are interpreted by humans.
A theoretical overview was made of past semantics research into vague adjectives on the one hand and of cognitive psychology research into the way humans represent and compare values and quantities on the other hand. It was hypothesized that the meaning of vague adjectives is related to and interacts with the way our cognitive system represents dimensions they refer to (for example, meanings of “long”, “big” and “many” would be related to the way we represent length, size and quantity). With this hypothesis in mind, a broader set of research questions was formulated which aim at investigating the interface between analog magnitude representation system and processing vague adjectives in language. The first set of experiments was based on previous research into digit and number word processing and employed a Stroop-like paradigm to extend those findings to vague adjective processing. These experiments looked into single word comprehension. Currently a second set of experiments is developed which aims at looking at involvement of analog magnitude representation system in sentence level processing.