Ambiguity in negative dependencies

How do we separate I didn’t do nothing from I didn’t do nothing?

Many languages exhibit Negative Concord, that is when two negative items are interpreted as a single negation. For example, if a man has robbed a bank and says I didn’t do nothing, we understand this as I didn’t do anything even though he used two negative words–didn’t and nothing. By contrast, if a mother comes home from work and finds her child sitting in front of the television, she might accuse them of having done nothing all day, to which they might reply I didn’t do nothing. The child, however means exactly the opposite of what the bank robber meant – that they did do something. French speakers have been shown to easily access both of these readings (Déprez et al. 2015), so we’ve undertaken a series of experiments to see how context (Déprez & Yeaton 2018), and prosody (Yeaton & Déprez forthcoming) might be employed to convey meaning. We also want to examine how good listeners are at leveraging these prosodic signals to access the meaning that the speaker intended (Loder et al. forthcoming).