Institut Jean Nicod

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Workshop en l'honneur de Sylvain Bromberger




Le 15 mai 2017


Salle des Actes, Ecole normale supérieure, 45, rue d'Ulm 75005 Paris.

Organisé par Paul Egré (IJN)


Participants :

Sylvain Bromberger (MIT)
Isabelle Dautriche (Edimbourg)
Paul Egré (IJN)
Robert May (UC Davis)
David Nicolas (IJN)
Joelle Proust (IJN)
Benjamin Spector (IJN)

Résumés :

On some aspects of why-questions
Sylvain Bromberger, MIT

Why-questions are very different from other wh-questions and even from their close neighbor "How come" questions. In this talk I will explore some of these differences and their significance.

Homophones: a challenge for meaning(s) acquisition?
Isabelle Dautriche, Emmanuel Chemla, Anne Christophe

Homophones present the learner with a unique word-learning situation. While most words conform to a one-to-one mapping between form and meaning, a homophone is a phonological form associated with several unrelated meanings. Mature language users use a diverse array of information sources (visual, linguistic…) to reach the correct interpretation of these words. However, children in the process of learning their language are faced with a different situation: they need to discover that a single word-form maps onto several distinct meanings. In two sets of studies, we explore the situations that lead children and toddlers to postulate homophony for a word. First with preschoolers learning novel words, we show that the distribution of the learning exemplars in conceptual space influences children’s inferences: observing exemplars clustered around two distant positions in conceptual space (e.g., 2 tigers and 2 beetles as opposed to 4 random animals) boosted the likelihood that the exemplars were sampled from two independent categories rather than from a single superordinate category (i.e., animal). Second, we show that 20-month-olds are willing to learn a second meaning for a word they know, provided that the two homophones are sufficiently distant syntactically (e.g. ‘an eat’ is a good name for a novel animal), or semantically (e.g. ‘a sweater’ for a novel animal), but not when they are close (e.g. ‘a cat’ for a novel animal). Taken together, our results show that children recruit multiple sources of information to infer whether or not a given word-form is likely to instantiate a novel meaning.

Mass and count: grammar, ambiguity, and polysemy
David Nicolas, IJN

According to the traditional view, languages like English distinguish two morphosyntactic subclasses of common nouns, mass nouns and count nouns. A defining characteristic of mass nouns, like "milk", "furniture", and "wisdom", is that they are invariable in grammatical number, while count nouns, like "rabbit", "match", and "idea", can be used in the singular and in the plural. Depending on the language, this basic morphosyntactic difference between the two types of noun is supplemented by differences as to the determiners they can combine with. Thus, in English, mass nouns can be used with determiners like "much" and "a lot of", but neither with "one" nor "many". On the contrary, count nouns can be employed with numerals like "one" and determiners like "many", but not with "much". However, as is well known, mass nouns (like "milk") can often be used as count nouns: "You should take a hot milk with some honey". And vice versa: "You will find a lot of rabbit around here". So, drawing inspiration from Bromberger (2012)'s discussion of the partly similar case of color terms, on what basis should one individuate the uses of common nouns and their interpretations? What pertains to grammar, ambiguity, and polysemy?

Bromberger, S. (2012). Vagueness, ambiguity, and the “sound” of meaning. In  M. Frappier, D. Brown & R. DiSalle (eds.), Analysis and Interpretation in the Exact Sciences, 75-93. Springer. 


Knowing what one does not know: A dual-process view
Joëlle Proust, Institut Jean-Nicod      

Sylvain Bromberger has offered us insightful analyses on the importance of knowing what we don't know in the complex domain of scientific explanation. This prompts the additional research question: does the general ability of reliably detecting what we don't know depend on having a language, or at least on having a propensity to communicate? Sensitivity to one's own ignorance, in humans, is seen as standardly expressed in questions, i.e. interrogative speech acts. The felicity conditions of interrogatives are that the agent does not know the truth about P, wants to know it, and believes that the addressee may supply it. Interrogative speech acts have been shown to be present in all cultures. With no words yet available, 20-month old infants are able to strategically ask for informational help.  Information-seeking questions are relentlessly asked by 3 to 5 year-old children. It is arguable, however, that the felicity conditions of interrogatives can be fulfilled by agents with no linguistic ability and no concept of knowledge, such as rhesus monkeys. From this viewpoint, it appears also unlikely that sensitivity to one's own ignorance needs to depend on having communicational goals, or that it requires hypothesizing a specially evolved non-conceptual attitude called "basic questioning". A more economical account is based on an independently motivated dual-process theory of metacognition.


Robert May, UC Davies


Benjamin Spector, IJN