Distinguishing between strict and loose speech: The counting paradigm and the meaning of ‘baby’


Distinguishing between strict and loose speech: The counting paradigm and the meaning of ‘baby’

Are fetuses babies? The question naturally attracts considerable interest in the abortion debate. Without going into that, we sketch possible answers to the purely linguistic question, and present relevant experimental data.

According to the broad view, the denotation of ‘baby’ extends to fetuses. According to the narrow view, it does not literally extend to fetuses; calling fetuses babies is an instance of loose speech. According to the polysemy view, ‘baby’ possesses both broad and narrow senses, with interpretation on any given occasion depending on context. According to the dialect view, ‘baby’ denotes fetuses in some varieties of English but not all.

To determine the correct view, we asked survey subjects whether they could tell how many babies were in given situations. (Is it possible to know, e.g., how many babies are in a room full of women, just by looking?) Subjects were trained to acknowledge ignorance in practice cases and primed to consider fetuses. Of 702 subjects, ~99% indicated that they did not regard potentially present fetuses as relevant to the number of babies.

The results contradict the broad view. Furthermore, the uniformity of results refutes the dialect view, or at least removes it as a factor in abortion debates; the 1% deviation in our data is not sizeable enough to explain the very roughly 50-50 split between those who assert that fetuses are babies and those who deny it. Finally, the results render the polysemy view highly implausible. With verbal primes to think of fetuses as babies, and visual primes of pregnant women, a non-trivial number of subjects should have responded according to a broad sense of ‘baby’, if one existed, yet they did not. The evidence strongly supports the narrow view.


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