[Ads-l] scalar

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Sep 1 01:47:26 UTC 2018

> On Aug 31, 2018, at 8:50 PM, James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM> wrote:
> On Thu, 30 Aug 2018 16:50:00 Zone-0400 Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote (ELIded?)
> <quote> <snip>
> As for “intense”, it doesn’t just mean “very tense” the way excellent 
> means ‘(very) very good’ or "frigid” means ‘very cold'; the relationship 
> between the two adjectives isn’t strictly scalar. <snip><end quote>
> I am used to hearing "scalar" (meaning having only a magnitude, in contrast to a vector which can represent both a magnitude and a direction)
> from mathematicians and physical scientists, but only when discussing topics involving vectors.  The above is a usage I do not recall ever having heard.  Also I'm not sure exactly "scalar" means in this context.
> - Jim landau 

For linguists (or those in semantics and pragmatics, anyway), scalar terms are those that can be positioned on a scale in which weaker elements are opposed to stronger ones as defined by informativeness (although it’s a bit more complicated).  These scales are typically represented by the use of angled brackets, e.g.

<some, many, most, all>
<not all, few, none>
<possible, likely, certain>
<cool, cold, frigid>
<warm, hot>
<acceptable, good, excellent>
<happy, ecstatic>
<sad, miserable>
<like, love, adore>
<dislike, hate, loathe>

In a given scale, the use of a weaker term tends to suggest (via a “scalar implicature”) that no stronger term on the same scale could have been substituted for it without affecting the truth value of the sentence (which is why “Some dogs are mammals”, while arguably a true sentence, is a misleading one, given that all of them are).  At the same time, the use of a relatively stronger term entails (logically implies) the truth of the corresponding statement in which that term is replaced by a weaker one on the same scale (“I loathed the movie” entails “I hated the movie” and both entail “I disliked the movie”). Grice’s work, and in particular the maxim of quantity (“Make your contribution as informative as is required…”), is taken to motivate the derivation of such implicatures.  

The diagnostics I mentioned predict that where X < Y on a scale like any of those above, the following frames will yield well-formed assertions:

Not only X but Y
At least X if not (downright) Y
X or even Y
Not even X, let alone/much less Y
X and possibly even Y

Obviously, if Y < X, the above frames will yield gobbledygook.  ("All or even some of my friends speak Basque”)

The literature on these relations goes back to Sapir (1944), “On Grading”,  but really took off beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by a set of lectures by the philosopher of language Paul Grice, although the notion of scalar implicature arose slightly later, in 1972.  Here’s a rather incomplete but marginally adequate wiki-entry:
(Dissertations could be written on this topic--and indeed have.)

I was invoking these sorts of considerations to question the suggestion that “intense” is a stronger version of “tense”, i.e. that a scale of the form
<tense, intense>
is plausible.  


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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