Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In a brief yet lucid summary, Lyons suggests that referring expressions such as “the lion,” “a lion,” and “lions” all admit a generic reading and can be used in sentences asserting generic propositions such as “The lion is a friendly beast.” Turning to consider the matter from the perspective of universal quantification wherein the generic interpretation should have the form x(Lx- > Fx), "For all values of x, if x is a lion, then x is friendly," Lyons notes that generics pose something of a challenge in so far as the formula seems to be both too strong (falsifiable by a single deviant case) and too weak (not distinguishing between something characteristic of lions from matters of contingent fact). I will consider these issues through an examination of some conversations in Vietnamese focusing on two cases in which participants weave generic reference into the fabric of their talk. In the first, the participants discuss the extent to which both men and women “suffer hardship”. In the second, the participants discuss the characteristics of people from several named regions of central Vietnam (e.g. Nghệ An). In these cases, generic references and the propositions in which they are embedded allow speakers to “jump scale” and to essentialize (Koven 2015) but they are also vulnerable to challenge in just the ways that Lyons might have predicted. Specifically, the participants in these conversations cause trouble for generic propositions both by invoking deviant cases and by pointing to possible underlying historical and sociological contingencies.