Color Adjectives, Standards, and Thresholds: An Experimental Investigation

Linguistics and Philosophy 40 (3):1--40 (2017)
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Abstract
Are color adjectives ("red", "green", etc.) relative adjectives or absolute adjectives? Existing theories of the meaning of color adjectives attempt to answer that question using informal ("armchair") judgments. The informal judgments of theorists conflict: it has been proposed that color adjectives are absolute with standards anchored at the minimum degree on the scale, that they are absolute but have near-midpoint standards, and that they are relative. In this paper we report two experiments, one based on entailment patterns and one based on presupposition accommodation, that investigate the meaning of scalar adjectives. We find evidence confirming the existence of subgroups of the population who operate with different standards for color adjectives. The evidence of interpersonal variation in where standards are located on the relevant scale and how those standards can be adjusted indicates that the existing theories of the meaning of color adjectives are at best only partially correct. We also find evidence that paradigmatic relative adjectives ("tall", "wide") behave in ways that are not predicted by the standard theory of scalar adjectives. We discuss several different possible explanations for this unexpected behavior. We conclude by discussing the relevance of our findings for philosophical debates about the nature and extent of semantically encoded context sensitivity in which color adjectives have played a key role.
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2017
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HANCAS-2
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First archival date: 2017-03-10
Latest version: 1 (2017-03-11)
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