On the role of alternatives in the acquisition of simple and complex disjunctions in French and Japanese

L Tieu, A Yatsushiro, A Cremers, Jacopo Romoli, U Sauerland, E Chemla

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27 Citations (Scopus)
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When interpreting disjunctive sentences of the form ‘A or B,’ young children have been reported to differ from adults in two ways. First, children have been reported to interpret disjunction inclusively rather than exclusively, accepting ‘A or B’ in con- texts in which both A and B are true (Gualmini, Crain, Meroni, Chierchia & Guasti 2001; Chierchia, Crain, Guasti & Thornton 2001). Second, some children have been reported to interpret disjunction conjunctively, rejecting ‘A or B’ in contexts in which only one of the disjuncts is true (Paris 1973; Braine & Rumain 1981; Chierchia, Guasti, Gualmini, Meroni, Crain & Foppolo 2004; Singh, Wexler, Astle, Kamawar & Fox 2015). In this paper, we extend the investigation of children’s interpretation of disjunction to include both simple and complex forms of disjunction, in two typologically unrelated languages: French and Japanese. First, given that complex disjunctions have been argued to give rise to obligatory exclusivity inferences (Spector 2014), we investigated whether the obligatoriness of the inference would play a role in the acquisition of the exclusive interpretation. Second, using a paradigm that makes the use of disjunc- tion felicitous, we aimed to establish whether the finding of conjunctive interpretations would be replicated for both simple and complex forms of disjunction, and in languages other than English. The main findings from our experiment are that both French- and Japanese-speaking children interpreted the simple and complex disjunctions either in- clusively or conjunctively; in contrast, adults generally accessed exclusive readings of both disjunctions. We argue that our results lend further support to the proposal put forth in Singh et al. (2015), according to which the reason some children compute conjunctive meanings while adults compute exclusive meanings is that the two groups differ in their respective sets of alternatives for disjunction. Crucially, adults access conjunction as an alternative to disjunction, and compute exclusive interpretations; in contrast, children access only the individual disjuncts as alternatives, and therefore either interpret the disjunction literally or compute conjunctive inferences. More gen- erally, our findings can be explained quite naturally within recent proposals according to which children differ from adults in the computation of scalar inferences because they are more restricted than adults in the set of scalar alternatives they can access (Barner, Brooks & Bale 2011; Tieu, Romoli, Zhou & Crain 2015b, among others).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-152
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Semantics
Issue number1
Early online date4 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 1 Feb 2017

Bibliographical note

European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n.313610, ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL*, ANR-10-LABX-0087 IEC, and DFG-Grant SA 925/11-1 within XPrag.de (SPP 1727) and BMBF grant 01UG1411


  • semantics
  • pragmatics
  • disjunction
  • scalar implicatures


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