Dissertation Oral Presentation Tuesday (6/17): Eric Acton

The Department of Linguistics is pleased to announce a dissertation oral presentation:

Pragmatics and the social meaning of determiners

Eric Acton

Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 1pm-2:15pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Rm 126

Abstract: Language users draw all kinds of inferences concerning the opinions, moods, backgrounds, and social relations of speakers on the basis of what they say, and much of what is conveyed depends only indirectly, if at all, on the literal content of what is said. Though meaning beyond the literal comprises a hefty and potent share of linguistic meaning, much remains to be uncovered and explained as regards this domain. In this work, I examine aspects of the socio-expressive significance of English demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and the article the. Via semantic, pragmatic, and variationist analysis, I show that these seemingly colorless expressions can in fact reflect and shape the nature of a speaker’s social relations.

In particular, I provide quantitative and qualitative evidence that (i) in referring to a group of people, using the (‘the Americans’) as opposed to a bare plural (‘Americans’) tends to depict the group as a monolith of which the speaker is not a part; and, drawing on previous research, (ii) demonstratives can serve as a linguistic resource for expressing exclamativity and evaluativity (e.g., Lakoff, 1974; Bowdle & Ward, 1995; Wolter, 2006; Davis & Potts, 2010; Potts & Schwarz, 2010) and for promoting a sense of shared perspective and experience between interlocutors (e.g., Lakoff, 1974; Chen, 1990; Wolter, 2006; Acton & Potts, 2014). In both cases, I show that the observed social effects can be explained from a broadly pragmatic perspective, by considering what a speaker says in light of the context of utterance and the semantics of alternative expressions she might have employed instead.

Taking all of this together, this work provides new insights into the social character of English determiners, makes the case that socio-expressive content is an indispensable facet of meaning and usage, and demonstrates the advantages of pursuing semantic, pragmatic, and sociolinguistic research in tandem.

(The format for this open part of the oral exam is a 30-45 minute talk by the PhD candidate followed by questions from those attending, for a total of no more than 75 minutes. Please arrive promptly!)

Oral exam committee: Penny Eckert and Chris Potts (Co-advisors), Dan Lassiter, Rob Podesva
University oral exam chair: Ewart Thomas (Psychology)