Color, context, and compositionality

Synthese 174 (1):79-98 (2010)
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Abstract

Color adjectives have played a central role in work on language typology and variation, but there has been relatively little investigation of their meanings by researchers in formal semantics. This is surprising given the fact that color terms have been at the center of debates in the philosophy of language over foundational questions, in particular whether the idea of a compositional, truth-conditional theory of natural language semantics is even coherent. The challenge presented by color terms is articulated in detail in the work of Charles Travis. Travis argues that structurally isomorphic sentences containing color adjectives can shift truth value from context to context depending on how they are used and in the absence of effects of vagueness or ambiguity/polysemy, and concludes that a deterministic mapping from structures to truth conditions is impossible. The goal of this paper is to provide a linguistic perspective on this issue, which we believe defuses Travis’ challenge. We provide empirical arguments that color adjectives are in fact ambiguous between gradable and nongradable interpretations, and that this simple ambiguity, together with independently motivated options concerning scalar dimension within the gradable reading accounts for the Travis facts in a simpler, more constrained, and thus ultimately more successful fashion than recent contextualist analyses such as those in Szabó (Perspectives on semantics, pragmatics and discourse: A festschrift for Ferenc Kiefer, 2001) or Rothschild and Segal (Mind Lang, 2009).

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Louise McNally
Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Citations of this work

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References found in this work

Word and Object.Willard Van Orman Quine - 1960 - Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
Word and Object.Willard Van Orman Quine - 1960 - Les Etudes Philosophiques 17 (2):278-279.
Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution.Brent Berlin & Paul Kay - 1991 - Center for the Study of Language and Information.
Conceptual Spaces: The Geometry of Thought.Peter Gärdenfors - 2000 - Tijdschrift Voor Filosofie 64 (1):180-181.

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