[PS-3.54] Processing negative polarity in quantifiers and in adjectives

Agmon, G. , Loewenstein, Y. & Grodzinsky, Y.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Antonymous pairs of degree adjectives (e.g. 'short'/'tall') are similar to antonymous pairs of degree quantifiers (e.g. 'few'/'many'): each pair has a negative and a positive, which differ on weather their degree is denoted to be below or above some contextual standard. However, unlike 'small', 'few' is downward entailing (DE), i.e. it supports inferences from sets to subsets, thus reversing the entailment direction of its upward entailing (UE) counterpart 'many'. DE-ness is a central property in semantic analysis, and therefore it is natural to seek its cognitive correlates. It has already been shown that DE quantifiers are more difficult to process than their UE counterparts, but no one has ever compared this effect to the effect evoked by negative polarity in adjectives.
We present three reaction time experiments (verification task) that directly compare negative polarity in non-DE adjectives to negative polarity in DE quantifiers. We found a strong effect of negative polarity on response times, and crucially we also found an interaction - the effect is larger in quantifiers than in adjectives. This suggests that DE-ness is determinant in linguistic processing.
Results from an ongoing fMRI study will also be presented.