Topics in Linguistics Theory

Tibetan graffiti on a crumbling plaster wall.

Tibetan text on wall. (Image courtesy of The Tibetan & Himalayan Digital Library, supported and managed by the University of Virginia Library: Image File #: C1951. Used with permission.)


MIT Course Number


As Taught In

Spring 2003



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Course Description

Course Features

Course Description

I realize that "Modes of Assertion" is a rather cryptic title for the course. What we will explore are ways of modulating the force of an assertion. This will engage us in formal semantics and pragmatics, the theory of speech acts and performative utterances, and quite a bit of empirical work on a not-too-well understood complex of data.

"It is obvious that he made a big mistake."

If you're like me you didn't feel much of a difference. But now see what happens when you embed the two sentences:

"We have to fire him, because he obviously made a big mistake."

"We have to fire him, because it is obvious that he made a big mistake."

One of the two examples is unremarkable, the other suggests that the reason he needs to be fired is not that he made a big mistake but the fact that it is obvious that he did.

We will try to understand what is going on here and look at related constructions not just in English but also German (with its famous discourse particles like ja) and Quechua and Tibetan (with their systems of evidentiality-marking, as recently studied in dissertations from Stanford and UCLA).

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Kai von Fintel. 24.910 Topics in Linguistics Theory. Spring 2003. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare, License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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