Contrast and distributivity in the semantics of alternation

Masha Esipova, NYU


Languages have various means of talking about events alternating in time. Some of the challenges posited by this alternation talk have been discussed in the semantics literature with respect to the adverb alternately (Lasersohn 1995; Champollion 2015, a.o.). I look at novel data on coordinate constructions of a special kind (which I uniformly refer to as TO-TO constructions), existing in many languages and illustrated in (1) for Russian, which illuminates the previously overlooked role contrast and distributivity play in the semantics of alternation.

(1) Petja to poët, ( a / *i / *ili) to tancuet.
Petya TO sings and-contrastive / and-non-contrastive / or TO dances
‘≈ Petya is alternately singing and dancing.’

Exploring the properties of TO-TO constructions, I propose a modular analysis under which what we conceptualize as alternation of events arises from the workings of two separate mechanisms:
(i) Contrast: local exhaustification within conjuncts, treated as Contrastive Topic constructions, yielding the temporal disjointness inference.
(ii) Tuple-wise distributivity: distributing the property of containing events of the kinds introduced by the conjuncts over tuples of adjacent elements in an ordered list of time intervals (I borrow the main insight from Champollion’s (2015) analysis of alternately and link it to distributivity); this component captures the arrangement inferences and the quasi-disjunctive distributivity pattern.