Expressing Ignorance in Japanese: Contrastive wa versus sukunakutomo

Volume 19
Issue 3
Hitomi Hirayama, Adrian Brasoveanu
In a series of three experiments, we investigate ignorance inferences triggered
by two numeral modifiers in Japanese, contrastive wa and sukunakutomo ‘at
least’. Experiment 1 (self-paced reading followed by acceptability judgments)
investigates how Questions under Discussion (QuDs) affect ignorance inferences
and shows that wa is QuD sensitive, while sukunakutomo is not. Given the results,
we hypothesize that there is a competition between the two ways of expressing
ignorance: sukunakutomo unambiguously encodes ignorance and is therefore
preferred when the speaker wants to express uncertainty. In contrast, wa simply
requires the presence of alternatives to the at-issue content, which are possible as
far as the speaker is concerned. These alternatives can be about numbers, which
trigger ignorance inferences, but need not be. Experiments 2 and 3 are forced
binary choice tasks. Experiment 2 investigated how sensitive people are to
ignorance of the speaker or contextual contrast when they are given a choice
between wa and ga. Experiment 3 compared wa and sukunakutomo and supported
the competition hypothesis. Specifically, Experiment 3 shows that sukunakutomo
is preferred when the speaker is ignorant, while wa is preferred when the speaker
is knowledgeable, and there is a contextually salient contrast that wa picks up on.