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Plurality in Buriat and structurally constrained alternatives

Journal of Semantics. 2020. Vol. 37. No. 1. P. 117-128.
Bylinina L., Podobryaev A.

In a variety of languages, plural DPs like books systematically show non-singularity inferences

in some contexts, but not in others. 

Competition-based theories of plurality derive non-singularity inferences from reasoning about

the meaning of the plural form against its singular alternative (Sauerland, 2003; Spector, 2007;

Zweig, 2009). A parallel claim has been made about the meaning of singular DPs { in particular,

that the non-plurality inferences that singular forms come with (= strictly atomic

interpretations) are the result of competition with a plural alternative. This has been suggested

for languages with a landscape of nominal number quite dierent from English (Western

Armenian, Bale and Khanjian 2014) { and for English as well (Farkas and de Swart, 2010).

Competition theories of number face a number of criticisms. First, it's been noticed that

plurality inferences can arise even in the absence of a relevant singular alternative in the language

(Magri, 2011; Ivlieva and Sudo, 2015; Sudo, 2017). Second, the mechanism constraining

the alternatives that play a role in competition-based meaning enrichments in general (including

number) is also currently under debate. In particular, the implementation of a general theory

of competition-based enrichments which refers to the structural complexity of alternatives as

a constraining mechanism (Katzir, 2007; Fox and Katzir, 2011) has recently been challenged

(Swanson, 2010; Romoli, 2013; Trinh and Haida, 2015).

We will not try to provide an overview of this debate (see Breheny et al. 2018) or argue for

any particular theory. Our goal is more modest. We describe nominal number in a language

with two kinds of semantically number-neutral DPs, only one of which can ever be strengthened.

As it turns out, the size of the projection of those DPs which cannot be strengthened is smaller

than the size of those that can. We take the very existence of such a language { here, Buriat { to

be an argument in favor of a competition-based analysis of number inferences, where structural

complexity is a factor in how alternatives are constrained.