Cournane Colloquium Friday April 15 at 3:30pm

Ailís Cournane (NYU) will present “Dedicated markers for the hardest thoughts: learning epistemics and counterfactuals the “easy” way” as part of the Linguistics Colloquium series on Friday April 15th at 3:30pm, both in-person and via zoom. All are welcome!


Epistemic reasoning (thinking about possibilities from knowledge-based inferences) and counterfactual reasoning (thinking about possibilities from undoing facts) are among the most complex kinds of reasoning humans can do. The language that expresses these thoughts is likewise complex: e.g., modal verbs with polysemous meanings and functional syntax (like “must” or “could”), and conditional constructions (“if…then”)  with “fake” past-tense markers (Iatridou 2000). But, it doesn’t have to be, those constructions are simply the canonical ones that have received the most attention in the linguistics and psychology literature. There are “easier” constructions out there… I’ll talk about two main case studies, primarily based on extensive corpus studies of English-learning children: (1) epistemic adverbs (“maybe”, “probably”) and (2) counterfactual propositional wish-es (“I wish I was a bar of soap” – Abe, age 4) (joint work with Maxime Tulling), both of which are common in the input to children and linguistically dedicated: they always express epistemicity or counterfactuality, respectively (unlike modal verbs and conditional constructions). We’ll see that children learn to talk about complex epistemic and counterfactual possibilities earlier with these more dedicated markers, updating our understanding of both language and reasoning development in these areas of possibility reasoning.