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Friday, March 7, 2014 - 12:00pm

IRCS Conference Room

Lisa Matthewson
Department of Linguistics
University of British Columbia

Finding out what ‘or’ does, by looking at languages without ‘or’

The standard analysis of English ‘or’ is that it introduces logical disjunction: ‘p or q’ istrue if and only if p is true, q is true, or both are. One challenge for this analysis is illustrated in (1).

(1) Jane may sing, or she may dance.

A logical disjunction analysis wrongly predicts that (1) is true if Jane is allowed to sing, but is not allowed to dance. In fact, (1) conveys that both options are permissible (even if only one of them can be chosen).

As a response to this problem, Zimmermann (2000) argues that ‘or’ semantically introduces conjunction of epistemic possibilities: ‘p or q’ means ‘possibly p AND possibly q’. (1) thus conveys that it is compatible with the speaker’s knowledge that Jane may sing, AND compatible with the speaker’s knowledge that Jane may dance.

Zimmermann’s analysis receives no overt support from English morphology or syntax, and his proposal that the truth conditions include epistemic commitment to both propositions is controversial (see Simons 2005, Alonso-Ovalle 2006, a.o.). However, in this talk I provide cross-linguistic support for the modal-plus-conjunction analysis of ‘or’. I present fieldwork data from three unrelated languages from the Pacific Northwest of North America: St’át’imcets (Salish), Tlingit (Na-Dene) and Gitksan (Tsimshianic). In St’át’imcets and Tlingit, simple ‘or’-sentences are primarily rendered by concatenated clauses introduced by epistemic modals (the literal equivalent of ‘possibly p, possibly q’). Gitksan does not wear Zimmermann’s analysis quite as overtly on its sleeve, but it does provide evidence against a disjunction analysis and for the general recent strand of research (of which Zimmermann’s was an early example) according to which ‘p or q’ relies on the set of alternative propositions {p, q}. ‘Or’-sentences in Gitksan are marked by ‘ligi’, an element which appears in a range of disparate constructions, all of which share the semantics of alternatives.

In the final part of the talk I address a set of exceptions to the above-described patterns in St’át’imcets, Tlingit and Gitksan. ‘Or’-sentences which involve threats (‘Either you eat your meat, or you don’t get dessert’) are systematically rendered using conditionals (‘If you don’t eat your meat, you don’t get dessert’). This suggests that English ‘or’ does not have a uniform semantics (cf. van Rooij and Franke 2010).