Tracking the activation of scalar alternatives with semantic priming
Keywords:pragmatics, scalar implicature, alternatives, semantic priming
From an utterance of Mary ate some of the deep dish, hearers frequently infer that Mary didn’t eat all of the deep dish. Similarly, an utterance of The movie is good might lead hearers to conclude that the movie isn’t excellent. These inferences are instances of scalar implicature (SI). The standard assumption is that SI arises via hearers’ reasoning about alternative utterances that the speaker could have said, but did not. In particular, hearers are taken to consider stronger alternatives such as all (or Mary ate all of the deep dish) and excellent (or The movie is excellent) and derive their negation. In this study, we investigate the psycholinguistic reflexes of this inferential process. We use semantic priming with lexical decision to test whether lexical alternatives such as all and excellent are retrieved and activated in the processing of SI-triggering sentences. The results of our experiments indeed suggest that alternatives play a role in the processing of SI, though a number of empirical puzzles remain.