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Dan on rising declaratives at ZAS workshop

January 25, 2021 Linguistics

Postdoctoral fellow Dan Goodhue gestures with his hands, almost interdigitating his fingers, will standing up and speaking in a sunlit room

A unified account of assertive and inquisitive rising declaratives?

February 4-5, Dan Goodhue visits Berlin virtually to speak at workshop on biased questions hosted by the Center for General Linguistics (ZAS). Dan will be presenting "Towards a unified account of inquisitive and assertive rising declaratives," which argues that a unified meaning of uncertainty for rising intonation becomes plausible once we recognize that only inquisitive rising declaratives have a steep prosodic rise.


Recent work on rising declaratives (RD; Gunlogson 2003, 2008; Truckenbrodt 2006, 2012; Trinh & Crnic 2011; Malamud & Stephenson 2015; Farkas & Roelofsen 2017; Krifka 2017; Westera 2017, 2018; Jeong 2018; Rudin 2018; Biezma 2020) has split over whether to analyze them as denoting the same semantic content as falling declaratives or as polar interrogatives, and over how to analyze the contribution of intonation. Complicating these theoretical choice points is the fact that some RDs are inquisitive, functioning in discourse more like polar questions than assertions, while others are assertive, functioning more like assertions than polar questions. Some have attempted unified accounts of both kinds of RDs, while most focus on only one kind or another (usually the inquisitive variety), leaving the prospects for a unified account to future work. Meanwhile, various researchers have assumed or argued that there is an intonational asymmetry that tracks the functional one, with inquisitive RDs rising more steeply than their assertive counterparts (Truckenbrodt 2012; Westera 2017, 2018; Jeong 2018; Rudin 2018). If this is correct, it provides a principled reason to expect the interpretational distinction we see, enabling accounts to hang the functional asymmetry on the contributions of each of the different intonational contours. 

In this talk, I argue that this intonational asymmetry tracks incredulous vs. non-incredulous RDs. Since not all inquisitive RDs are incredulous, this means that the intonational asymmetry does not track the inquisitive/assertive split. In particular, I argue that a specific kind of inquisitive RD, the confirmative RD, is most naturally produced with a shallow rise, akin to the rise found in assertive RDs. This undermines empirical support from intonation for distinct accounts of inquisitive and assertive RDs. Then, I argue for a unified account of inquisitive and assertive RDs that has the following features:

1. The root clauses of rising and falling declaratives share the same semantic denotation to the exclusion of polar interrogatives

2. Falling vs. rising intonation contributes non-at-issue meaning—roughly certainty vs. uncertainty—that usually, but not always, targets the propositional content of the utterance (Bartels, 1999; Truckenbrodt, 2012)

3. There is a single convention of use: utterances of declaratives and polar interrogatives put their semantic content on the Table (Farkas & Bruce, 2010; Farkas & Roelofsen, 2017), and nothing more.

4. Further interpretational distinctions (whether the speaker or the addressee is expected to commit to an answer to the issue just placed on the Table, the contextual bias condition on the use of an inquisitive RD, the metalinguistic issue raised by an assertive RD) are derived via pragmatics from the clausal meaning, the intonational meaning, and the context. 

A consequence of this account is that pragmatics plays a key role in determining whether we would call an utterance an “assertion” or a “question”. This distinction cannot be derived from just the semantic type of the root clause uttered, but it is nevertheless derived, rather than baked into conventions of use or illocutionary force operators.