ELTE BTK Magyar Nyelvtudományi és Finnugor Intézet

Tamm, Anne (Budapest)

nyomtatható változat



Context, grammar, and the generic-episodic distinction 

This contribution examines generic sentences, as discussed in (Carlson & Pelletier 1995, Krifka et al. 1995, Schuber & Pelletier 1987). Instances of a generic sentence are in (1) and (2). 

(1)       Ducks lay eggs.

(2)       Ducks are birds. 

A generic sentence presents a statement about a state of affairs as holding in general—the property of laying eggs characterizes ducks as such and not particular individuals. It provides information about kinds and not about specific individuals and attributes a property of a kind.

Sentences that present a single episode are called episodic, as in (3). The statements characterize ducks as particular individuals that are located at a certain place. 

(3)       Ducks are on the lake.

Previous scholarship has established a puzzling fact: although languages do not grammaticalize any overt generic operator, we interpret sentence (1) and (2) as generic, as opposed to sentence (3) (see Leslie 2008 for more details of the puzzle). Although sentence (1) would allow both interpretations as far as grammatical marking is concerned, only one interpretation emerges: the generic one. The puzzle is even more perplexing, since children are earlier in interpreting well a generic sentence than a sentence with an overt quantifier (some, most, all, etc).

What triggers the generic interpretation then, if not linguistic cues: what are the cues and mechanisms that bring about an unambiguously generic interpretation?

It seems that factors such as context and general cognitive bias play a role in generic interpretations. The further questions then are as follows:

  • Does the interpretation of sentences as generic depend on linguistic cues at all?
  • If it does, what are these cues?
  • If it doesn't, is generic and episodic interpretation a matter of grammar at all, and are there then cues in the broader linguistic context that influence the interpretation?
  • If there are, what are they, and if there aren't, could there be extralinguistic context that enables generic interpretation? Can we tease apart the types of context?
  • What are the cognitive mechanisms that facilitate or trigger generic interpretation?
  • If there are many factors, how do they interact?
  • Would cross-linguistic research shed new light on this issue, given the fact that except for some sources, previous observations and generalizations are based on a rather small sample of languages?

This contribution examines the expression of generics on the example of some Uralic languages. The proposal is to study the following points as a matter of a cross-linguistic typological questionnaire:

·       What is the grammatical marking of generic sentences like?

·       Are there any peculiarities in the tense, aspect, evidentiality, mood, definiteness marking in generic sentences?

·       Is reference to kinds marked in the grammar?

·       Are generic sentences encoded as states?

·       Are there differences in encoding stage and individual level predicates?

·       Do these languages have different modal markers? Are abilities and dispositions marked?

·       How are predicatives marked? Are there splits in predicative marking?

·       Are there tense, locative etc adverbials in the sentence to enhance the disambiguation process?

·       Is it possible to pin down the role of the linguistic context and to distinguish it from non-linguistic context?

·       How do the Uralic languages compare with other languages for which we have data?

The goal of this talk is not to give exhaustive answers to each of these questions but rather to relate the two sets of questions. The main question is if linguistic—in particular, Uralic—data could inform us better about the puzzle of genericity.

Thus, the contribution tries to formulate what are the implications for the understanding of grammar, context, and cognition if we found a certain type of data. For instance, if any Uralic language would be found to encode genericity by grammatical means alone, with no contribution of the surrounding context, then we could conclude with more certainty that there is a generic operator that is in some languages overt. At this point, a claim of this kind cannot be backed up with hard linguistic evidence yet. At best, we can assume a covert or default generic operator, or resort to other solutions in solving the generic puzzles.


Carlson, G. and Pelletier, F. J. (eds.). 1995. The Generic Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Krifka, M., F. Pelletier, G. Carlson, A. ter Meulen, G. Chierchia, and G. Link. 1995.

Genericity: An Introduction. In G. Carlson and F. J. Pelletier (eds.) The Generic Book.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1–125.

Leslie, S. J. 2008. Generics: Cognition and Acquisition. Philosophical Review,

117(1). 1–47.

Schubert, L.K.  & Pelletier, F.J. 1987. Problems in Representing the Logical Form of

Generics, Bare Plurals, and Mass Terms. In E. Lepore (ed.), New Directions in Semantics. Academic Press. 387–453.