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Encoding individuals in language using syntax, words, and pragmatic inference

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How does linguistic structure relate to how we construe reality? In many languages, countable individuals like objects are typically labeled by count nouns (e.g., two rabbits , every truck , etc.), while unindividuated masses like substances are typically labeled by mass nouns (e.g., much mud , barrel of oil , etc.) (Quine WVO. Word and Object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1960). These facts have led researchers to propose that learning mass–count syntax affects how speakers perceive objects and substances or alternatively that an understanding of this distinction—or one between individuals and nonindividuals—scaffolds the acquisition of mass and count nouns. Here, we evaluate these ideas and describe how recent developments in the literature have fundamentally changed our understanding of the mass–count distinction and how it relates to individuation. Across three sections, we show that a simple distinction between countable individuals and nonindividuals cannot provide a foundation for the mass–count distinction (e.g., because many mass nouns like furniture and luggage can denote individuals). Furthermore, we show that mass–count syntax does not shape whether items are construed as individuals or not, but instead allows speakers to select from a set of universally available meanings (e.g., because speakers of all languages quantify objects and substances similarly). We argue that a complete understanding of how mass–count syntax encodes reality requires understanding how different aspects of language—syntax, lexical roots, word meanings, and pragmatic inference—interact to encode abstract, countable individuals.

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