On Referential Vagueness: A Comparative Study of English and American Sign Language

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Yoon, Suwon. 2021. On referential vagueness: A comparative study of English and American Sign Language. Linguistic Research 38(1): 53-73. In addition to the widely known Free Choice Items (FCIs), there exists another type of anti-specific item, known as existential indeterminate or Referentially Vague Items (RVIs) such as some-X-or-other in English. Such polarity items are characterized to be rather semantically non-emphatic, and their non-emphaticness is modeled as referential vagueness as a speaker-based felicity condition of minimal, non-exhaustive variation. Both FCIs and RVIs are anti-specificity phenomena, relying on a speaker’s epistemic judgment, but distinct in that, whereas FCIs require exhaustive variation, RVIs require partial, non-exhaustive variation. However, the landscape of specificity in signed languages has been less well-defined. In this background, the main goal of current study is twofold: first, by identifying an RVI sign in ASL, equivalent to RVIs in English, I support the necessity of the notion of referential vagueness to correctly capture the meaning and distribution of non-emphatic, non-exhaustive NPIs occurring in nonveridical contexts; and second, I show how both English and ASL exhibit a remarkable case of semantic-o-pragmatic extension from anti-specificity (as RVIs) to anti-veridicality (as metalinguistic negation).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)53-73
Number of pages21
JournalLinguistic Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • (Anti-)specificity
  • ASL
  • English
  • free choice items
  • metalinguistic negation
  • polarity
  • referentially vague items


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