Cross-linguistic scope ambiguity: When two systems meet

Gregory Scontras, Maria Polinsky, C.-Y. Edwin Tsai, Kenneth Mai

Accurately recognizing and resolving ambiguity is a hallmark of linguistic ability. English is a language with scope ambiguities in doubly-quantified sentences like A shark ate every pirate; this sentence can either describe a scenario with a single shark eating all of the pirates, or a scenario with many sharks—a potentially-different one eating each pirate. In Mandarin Chinese, the corresponding sentence is unambiguous, as it can only describe the single-shark scenario. We present experimental evidence to this effect, comparing native speakers of English with native speakers of Mandarin in their interpretations of doubly-quantified sentences. Having demonstrated the difference between these two languages in their ability for inverse scope interpretations, we then probe the robustness of the grammar of scope by extending our experiments to English-dominant adult heritage speakers of Mandarin. Like native speakers of Mandarin, heritage Mandarin speakers lack inverse scope in Mandarin. Crucially, these speakers also lack inverse scope in English, their dominant language in adulthood. We interpret these results as evidence for the pressure to simplify the grammar of scope, decreasing ambiguity when possible. In other words, when two systems meet—as in the case of heritage speakers—the simpler system prevails.