Chapter published in:Thetics and Categoricals
Edited by Werner Abraham, Elisabeth Leiss and Yasuhiro Fujinawa
[Linguistik Aktuell/Linguistics Today 262] 2020
► pp. 312–333
The thetic/categorical distinction as difference in common ground update
With application to Biblical Hebrew
The distinction between thetics and categoricals in natural language has been observed in more and more languages recently. The theoretical discussion about the thetic/categorical distinction has also become increasingly relevant. This article presents a few challenges to an assertion/judgment-based analysis of the thetic/categorical distinction and offers instead an analysis based on common ground update within a theory of alternative semantics. In this approach, I follow Murray (2009, 2010, 2014) and Roberts (2012) that each sentence offers different kinds of update to the common ground based on the question(s) under discussion (or at-issue/not-at-issue content). I suggest that thetics present a unique type of update which explains why sentences such as It is raining, prosodically inflected sentences (known as those with sentence focus), existentials, and presentatives have been called thetics. Each statement contributes to (or updates) the information interlocutors use, and this common ground shapes the assertions they make. I ultimately propose that the thetic/categorical distinction may no longer be helpful for a description of natural language. Instead, these phenomena can be situated within the increasingly robust frameworks which bridge the syntax-semantics-pragmatics interfaces. Finally, I apply this proposal to a construction type in Biblical Hebrew which I previously labelled a thetic construction in Wilson (2017, 2019).
Keywords: thetic, categorical, Ancient Hebrew, update, common ground, at-issue, not-at-issue, alternative semantics
Published online: 22 July 2020
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