2008-2012: the project is over, thank you all for your participation !
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Project Leader : Alda Mari - Homepage

The project focuses on genericity in natural language. Since the publication of the collective work 'The Generic Book' (Carlson & Pelletier (ed.), 1995), research on genericity has developed in various directions. The principal merit of 'The Generic Book' was to establish a unified terminology, which paved the way for very detailed and specific studies, whose results are intended to be cumulative. Since then, much of the research has focused on syntactic and semantic issues and important advances have been made. Today, for obtaining more comprehensive and conclusive results, the widening of the empirical domain and the development of powerful theoretical tools lead to closely consider the interfaces between syntax, semantics and new logics (such as new logics for plurality), and to appeal to notions largely discussed in the philosophical literature (such as capacity and dispositions). On the other hand, the influence of pragmatic factors has been unsatisfactorily undermined. The contexts enabling generic interpretations have not been characterized, and the interaction between prosody, modal parameters and genericity has not been investigated in detail.
Yet, in parallel with specific linguistic studies, there has been a lot of work from philosophers of language on the role of context in the interpretation of generic vs. non-generic assertions. The goal of our project is to renew the study of genericity by articulating linguistic issues (syntax and semantics) with logical (concerning the choice of models) and philosophical ones (concerning pragmatics). In particular, we want to:

(i) Reconsider the ontological questions linked to genericity in light of the works of philosophers and logicians on pluralities and properties. Should one postulate species in addition to particular individuals? Are species primitive entities or constructions due to certain operations? What differences are there between a species and a set of individuals? Between a species and a set of properties? Should one go for a rich ontology with species and/or properties, or for a poor ontology incorporating new operations? The consequences of each of these choices must be examined, and to do so, collaboration between linguists and logicians is crucial. Here, we will focus on the interpretation of noun phrases.

(ii) Re-evaluate the relevance of the distinction between 'GEN' and 'HAB'. Two domains of quantification, individuals and events, are typically identified as the domains on which these quantifiers would operate. We want to examine

(i) whether this distinction is sufficient, and

(ii) what empirical domains it applies to. We will do so by confronting recent linguistic work on the types of predicates giving rise to generic interpretations (the distinction between stage-level and individual-level predicates being too limited) and philosophical work on dispositions, essential and accidental properties, and the logic of action. Here, we will focus on the interpretation of verb phrases.

(iii) Finally, it is essential to articulate questions of syntax and semantics with a pragmatic perspective. In French, no specific linguistic form is dedicated to expressing genericity. It is only in context that a sentence like 'Les chiens aboient' (dog barks) is given a generic or a specific interpretation. The interpretation is generic when the sentence is followed by 'alors les chats miaulent' ('but cats meow'), and specific if it is followed by 'et ça empêche le bébé de dormir' ('and this prevent the baby from sleeping'). We want to identify under what conditions a sentence is construed generically. To do so, the research on genericity must be articulated with works on the structure of information, discourse, and prosody. In this phase of the project, we will in particular re-evaluate the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments, examining under which conditions genericity might be independent of inductive inferences. Crucially, we will consider genericity as a particular kind of interpretation of assertions made in certain contexts.