Underspecified Temporal Semantics in Pirahã, Compositional Transparency, and Inference
Daniel Everett
May 2021

When the semantics is underspecified for some range of meaning, i.e. the grammar fails to display the full range of signs (words and syntax) required for semantic interpretation, compositionality across the relevant range is non-transparent. Pirahã tense is interesting because non-transparent temporal interpretations in Pirahã require more information than the syntax (or the pragmatics) provides. Moreover, not only are temporal interpretations in Pirahã underdetermined by Pirahã syntax, but this underdetermination provides yet more evidence against what one might label "naive compositionality" - the idea that meanings are provided Montague-style by mappings from syntax to semantics. Indeed, as we see, underspecified temporal semantics calls into question the very nature of compositionality itself. However, if we reinterpret compositionality as a subtype of inference in the Peircean sense, we are able not only to better understand some pecularities in the relationship between Pirahã language and cognition but to also predict (as per Everett 2017 and Barham and Everett 2020) "degrees of fit" between morphosyntactic structures, meanings, and cultures across languages, leading to an informal typology of language types that includes languages without sentential recursion (e.g., but not limited to, Pirahã). Finally, Pirahã temporal semantics is also interesting because it forces an adjustment of Reichenbach's theory of tense, in line with Everett (1993), namely, that the "Reference" coordinate in his system is dispensable in some languages.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/005914
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: To appear in Understanding Human Time, Cambridge University Press
keywords: pirahã, wari', compositionality, inference, syntax, semantics, charles peirce, semantics, morphology, syntax
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