Numerous meanings: The meaning of English cardinals and the legacy of Paul Grice. By Bert Bultinck.
Reviewed by Michael Haugh,
The issue of what English cardinal numbers mean may seem at first glance a fairly specialized topic, but as Bert Bultinck comprehensively demonstrates in his study, resolving this issue has significant implications not only for theorizing about the interface between semantics and pragmatics, but also for the methodological stance that underpins much theorizing in the field of pragmatics.
The book consists of six chapters. Ch. 1, ‘Introduction’ (1–3), contains a very brief statement of the primary focus of B’s study, while Ch. 6, ‘Conclusion’ (303–10), gives a succinct overview of the main findings of his study. The bulk of the content of this book thus lies in the intervening four chapters.
Ch. 2, ‘The Gricean theory of implicature’ (5–59), is a general discussion of the theory of implicature proposed by H. Paul Grice and subsequent modifications of it by neo-Griceans and relevance theorists. The focus here is on a particular type of implicature, namely generalized conversational implicature, and its relationship to the logical meaning of expressions. B concludes that conventional meaning should be identified with ‘familiar meaning’ by examining the frequency of different senses in corpora, a theme that is crucial to this study.
In Ch. 3, ‘Three decades of Gricean numerals’ (61–101), B focuses on the literature associated with the arguments for and against the Gricean view of cardinals. Alternatives to the Gricean approach are also found to be inadequate by B, who thus introduces an ‘absolute value’ approach to cardinals, which is further elaborated upon in the following two chapters.
Ch. 4, ‘General corpus analysis of the forms and functions of English cardinals’ (103–66), constitutes a corpus-based analysis of the different syntactic characteristics and functions of cardinals. The forms and functions of ‘two’ are taken to be representative of other cardinals, although ‘zero’ is considered to be an exceptional case, and so is given a separate treatment in the last section of the chapter. This analysis shows that while numbers can be used to specify cardinality, there are other uses such as in mathematical calculations and time expressions, among other things. There is, however, a correlation to be found between adnominal uses of numerals and cardinality, according to B’s analysis.
In Ch. 5, ‘ “At least n”, “exactly n”, “at most n” and “absolute value” readings’ (167–302), B finally tackles the question of what constitutes the ‘coded’ meaning of cardinals. While one of the key findings of this corpus-based analysis is that cardinals actually have numerous meanings, B argues that the ‘absolute value’ (i.e. with no modal commitment) is the most frequent meaning to be found in the corpus and thus is the conventional (or ‘coded’) meaning of cardinals. While the ‘exactly n’ interpretation is also quite common, it is argued by B that this arises due to the influence of restrictors and definiteness on the ‘absolute value’. The ‘at least’ and ‘at most’ readings of cardinals are found to be much less frequent, arising from extralinguistic material in the cotext (and occasionally the context).
B’s study shows that the Gricean/neo-Gricean view of cardinals is problematic in light of an analysis of the actual usage of numerals. More importantly, however, B demonstrates that a corpus-based analysis has considerable value in furthering our understanding of the meaning of lexical items that appear to lie at the crossroads of semantics and pragmatics.