[Lingtyp] Polarity reversal and counterfactual conditionals

Christian Lehmann christian.lehmann at uni-erfurt.de
Sun Mar 6 09:57:59 UTC 2022

Dear Jesús,

just two observations on your question:

1. While I ignore who proposed to speak of 'polarity reversal' with 
reference to counterfactual conditionals, the term does not appear to be 
particularly felicitous. A conditional clause presupposes the 
disjunction between a proposition and its negative counterpart. It 
chooses one of the alternatives and asserts a conclusion which follows 
from the choice. A counterfactual conditional does the same. It has an 
added presupposition saying that the alternative not chosen for 
conclusion is true. This is all.

2. The pairing of a univocal structure with the meaning described, in 
the form of the counterfactual conditional construction, is something 
first observed in Latin and then applied to further languages. As you 
imply, many languages lack such a pairing of function with structure. 
Then they may code the additional presupposition explicitly. Taking up 
your example #3, they might add the assertion: 'but I didn't go.'

Moreover, such an assertion is often added to counterfactual 
conditionals even in SAE languages whose grammatical means would appear 
to be sufficient to convey counterfactuality. There are contexts in 
which it is expedient to make explicit what started out as a presupposition.


Am 06.03.2022 um 03:38 schrieb Jesus Francisco Olguin Martinez:
> Dear all,
> I hope this message finds you well.
> As you know, counterfactual conditionals involve *_polarity 
> reversal_*, that is, they involve a situation with the opposite 
> polarity to what is marked, as in the following examples:
> 1. If I had gone, I would have seen her
> [I did not go, I did not see her]
> 2. If I hadn't gone, I would have not seen her.
> [I did go, I did see her]
> Polarity reversal tends to be inferredin counterfactual conditionals, 
> as in the examples shown above. However, there are various languages 
> in which polarity reversal must be explicitly indicated:
> 3. If I had gone, I would have seen her, (*BUT) I DID NOT (SEE HER)*.
> I have various hypotheses regarding why these languages may indicate 
> explicitly polarity reversal in this type of construction.
> I was wondering if you are aware of any studies that have explored 
> this domain and/or any languages that have this type of construction.
> Thank you very much in advance!
> Best,
> --
> Jesús Olguín Martínez
> Ph.D. Candidate, Dept. of Linguistics
> /University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)/
> http://www.linguistics.ucsb.edu/people/jesús-olguín-martínez 
> <http://www.linguistics.ucsb.edu/people/jes%C3%BAs-olgu%C3%ADn-mart%C3%ADnez>
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Prof. em. Dr. Christian Lehmann
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99092 Erfurt

Tel.: 	+49/361/2113417
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