Bootstrapping attitudes

Valentine Hacquard

This paper explores two classic problems at the semantics-pragmatics interface from a learner’s perspective. First, the meaning that speakers convey often goes beyond the literal meaning of the sentences they utter. Second, not all content encoded in utterances has equal standing: some is foregrounded, some backgrounded. Yet a sentence does not formally distinguish what a speaker asserts from what she presupposes or merely implicates. For this reason, the child acquiring a language has a daunting task. She must both extract the literal meaning from the overall message, and separate the background assumptions that are linguistically required from those that are incidental. This paper discusses the ways in which the syntax might guide the child with this daunting task, through a few case studies on children’s acquisition of attitude verbs.