The Grammar of Subjectivity

Harper Memorial Library, Room 140

One feature of human language that is crucial to its role in communication is the systematic relation between linguistic symbols (words, phrases, sentences) and the information they express in different contexts. For example, the sentence, “The Quad Club is currently serving tripe for lunch” conveys the same information about the world at the time of utterance no matter who utters it. As a result, if Anna says “The Quad Club is currently serving tripe for lunch,” and Beatrice says “No, the Quad Club is not currently serving tripe for lunch,” then clearly one must be wrong, and we can simply look at the menu to discover the facts. However, the information content of many kinds of linguistic expressions appears to vary according to the perspective, attitudes, or subjective viewpoint of the individual who utters them. If Anna says “The Quad Club tripe is delicious,” and Beatrice responds, “No, the Quad Club tripe is not delicious,” we can no longer say with confidence that one must be right and the other wrong; instead, what each says can be in some way “true for her.” Expressions of taste are a fairly benign example of such “subjective predicates.” Other examples, such as expressions of aesthetic or moral judgments, play a more significant role in thinking about the relation between language and the world. This talk will examine subjectivity from the perspective of linguistic semantics, showing that subjective predicates have a number of shared grammatical features, and explain how a close examination of these features can help us better understand what subjectivity consists in and how it is encoded in the linguistic system.