Semantics and pragmatics of arbitrariness

Sophia Alexandra Malamud, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation explores a typology of a number of impersonal [1] and passive [2] constructions (constructions with arbitrary interpretations or arbs) in Russian, German, Italian, French, and English based on their semantic and pragmatic properties. (1) They speak English in America. (2) The enemy ship was sunk. The goal of this work is twofold. First, I want to introduce a semantically-driven typology into the diverse realm of impersonals and passives. Second, in doing so I want to formally capture the interpretation of context-dependent expressions by building in a reference to speaker/hearer goals into the semantics of definite plurals. The formal tools developed in creating the typology of arbs allow a greater insight into the interaction of context and truth-conditions in general. Pursuing the first goal, I argue that some arbs are uniformly definite, while others are essentially indefinite, drawing attention to previously unobserved behavior of different arbs with respect to adverbial quantification. Further differences between the two types of arbs emerge in their interaction with topic structure and discourse anaphora. A closer look at those arbitrary pronouns that can also refer to the speaker and/or hearer (you in English and Russian, French on, German man, and Italian si) necessitate a more elaborated structure for this subset of indefinite arbs, involving an indefinite (variable) and an indexical-like component. The exploration of these arbs gives rise to an investigation into the nature of indexicality and reference de se. Addressing the second goal, I contribute to the development of semantic theory by arguing that the use of Decision Theory in the formal treatment of definite plurals can bring forth new insights, both empirical and theoretical. The Decision-Theoretic approach allows a formal account of context-dependency when interpretation depends on speaker/hearer goals. In application to definite plurals, this framework replaces and expands the empirical coverage of earlier accounts of distributivity and non-maximality in definite plurals, both arbs and non-arbitrary NPs (Schwarzschild 1991, Brisson 1998, Landman 1989).

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Recommended Citation

Malamud, Sophia Alexandra, "Semantics and pragmatics of arbitrariness" (2006). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3225500.