Monthly Archives: May 2018

Colloquium (9/9/2015): Boaz Keysar (University of Chicago)

Living in a Foreign Tongue

Hundreds of millions of people live and work while using a language that is not their native tongue. Given that using a foreign language is more difficult than using a native tongue, one would expect an overall deleterious effect on their mental and physical performance. We have discovered that the opposite is often true. We argue that a foreign language provides psychological and emotional distance, thereby allowing people to be less biased in their decision-making, more willing to take smart risks and to be guided more by hope than by fear of loss. We show that a foreign language also affects ethical behavior such as cheating and moral choice. But we also find that when emotions are crucial for learning from experience, native tongue is crucial for improving choice over time. Living and functioning in a foreign tongue, then, has surprising consequences for how individuals think, feel and operate, and it has important implications for social policy, negotiation, diplomacy and immigration issues.

Colloquium (9/16/2015): Edward Gibson (MIT)

Information theoretic approaches to language universals

Finding explanations for the observed variation in human languages is the primary goal of linguistics, and promises to shed light on the nature of human cognition. One particularly attractive set of explanations is functional in nature, holding that language universals are grounded in the known properties of human information processing. The idea is that grammars of languages have evolved so that language users can communicate using sentences that are relatively easy to produce and comprehend. In this talk, I summarize results from explorations into several linguistic domains, from an information-processing point of view.

First, we show that all the world’s languages that we can currently analyze minimize syntactic dependency lengths to some degree, as would be expected under information processing considerations. Next, we consider communication-based origins of lexicons and grammars of human languages. Chomsky has famously argued that this is a flawed hypothesis, because of the existence of such phenomena as ambiguity. Contrary to Chomsky, we show that ambiguity out of context is not only not a problem for an information-theoretic approach to language, it is a feature. Furthermore, word lengths are optimized on average according to predictability in context, as would be expected under and information theoretic analysis. Then we show that language comprehension appears to function as a noisy channel process, in line with communication theory. Given si, the intended sentence, and sp, the perceived sentence we propose that people maximize P(si | sp ), which is equivalent to maximizing the product of the prior P(si) and the likely noise processes P(si → sp ). We discuss how thinking of language as communication in this way can explain aspects of the origin of word order, most notably that most human languages are SOV with case-marking, or SVO without case-marking.

LingLang Lunch (9/30/2015): Matt Hall (University of Connecticut)

Using Non-Language to Understand Language

Communicative systems crucially depend on the fact that they are shared between those who send signals and those who receive them. How did this shared-ness come about? Specifically, are producers and comprehenders subject to the same sets of heuristics when creating a communication system de novo? Here, I explore these questions by asking naïve participants (hearing non-signers) to describe or simple events in pantomime, to comprehend pantomimed descriptions, or both. By initially segregating production from comprehension, we can establish a clearer foundation for understanding the (tacit or explicit) negotiations that take place during dynamic communicative interaction. I will summarize the results of several experiments on pantomime production, comprehension, and dynamic interaction, and will suggest that these findings can help us better understand the nonlinguistic origins from which grammar develops.

LingLang Lunch (10/7/2015): Stephen Emet (Brown University)

“I’m sorry I ever went to that talk”: NPIs in Affective Contexts

Negative polarity items (NPIs) like the English any and ever are thought to be licensed only if they occur in a downward entailing environment (one which supports inferences from sets to subsets). These NPIs are also licensed by affective predicates like surprise, sorry, and regret. I argue that these predicates are not downward entailing, and propose an alternative account of the licensing of NPIs in affective contexts. On my account, such NPIs are licensed by virtue of strengthening the informational content of the utterance they are a part of. I argue that such an account better can explain certain facts concerning the acceptability of NPIs in so-called “roofing” constructions.

LingLang Lunch (10/21/2015): Polly Jacobson (Brown University)

You think there’s Silent Linguistic Material, but I don’t: Neg Raising meets Ellipsis

The first part of this talk will set the stage with material that some but hopefully not all of the LingLangLunchers have heard. This background part is my ‘take’ on the existence of so‐called Silent Linguistic Material (SLM) in so‐called ‘ellipsis’ constructions (the relevant one here is VP Ellipsis). The issue of whether or not there is “SLM” is illustrated by the following question: since the sentence in (1a) can easily be understood as (1b) (and, without additional context, this is pretty much the only interpretation, is (1a) actually at some level the same as (1), where ski that course in 4 minutes is deleted or silenced?

(1) a. Bode can ski that course in 4 minutes, and Lindsay can too.
     b. Bode can ski that course in 4 minutes and Linday can ski that course in 4
          minutes too.

There is a wealth of literature going back decades arguing that this is so, and within the SLM approach there are two main competing hypotheses: (a) that ski that course in 4 minutes in (a) is silenced on the basis of formal identity with the VP in the first conjunct, or (b) that it is silenced on the basis of semantic identity with (the meaning of) the first VP. I begin this talk with reasons to doubt the conventional wisdom (in either of its incarnations); there is particularly strong evidence against the formal identity view. I will also (depending on the time) answer some of the traditional arguments for the SLM view, particularly a couple based on how (b) is understood (which is a very old argument) and on new arguments based on processing considerations.

I then turn to new material here (tentative and in progress) centering on the interaction of Neg Raising and VP Ellipsis. Neg Raising is the phenomenon by which (2a) is easily understood as (2b) where the not is in the lower clause:

(2) a. Bernie doesn’t think we should be talking about the e‐mails.
      b. Bernie thinks we shouldn’t be talking about the e‐mails.

One view is that there is a syntactic process moving a negation from lower to higher clause. The alternative view is that the negation in (2) semantically is in the higher clause, and there is a pragmatic strengthening. I will be concerned with cases like (3) (and more elaborated versions):

(3) Bernie doesn’t think we should be talking about the e‐mails, and neither does
     Hillary.

The full argument requires more elaborated examples, but the bottom line will be that if there is syntactic Neg Raising, then the conditions for SLM must be formal identity. But there is good reason to reject that view. And so, turning this around: assuming there is no SLM (especially no SLM sanctioned by formal identity) then there cannot be Neg Raising, and some version of the pragmatic strengthening story must be correct.

(NOTE: This is in preparation for an upcoming talk at a workshop honoring Laurence Horn; he has done extensive work on Neg Raising, arguing against the syntactic solution.)

LingLang Lunch (11/4/2015): Matt Hall (University of Connecticut)

Keeping the hands in mind: Executive function and implicit learning in deaf children

The hands can reveal a lot about the mind. In particular, sign language manifests the human capacity for language in a distinct way, and provides unique opportunities to ask both basic and translational questions about language and cognition. In this talk, I look to Deaf native signers as a way of testing recent claims about the impact of auditory deprivation on cognitive development in two domains: executive function and implicit learning. Results are inconsistent with the auditory deprivation hypothesis, but consistent with the language deprivation hypothesis. I’ll then consider the translational implications of these findings, identify remaining gaps in our empirical knowledge, and discuss my plans for addressing those gaps.

Colloquium (11/11/2015): Evelina Fedorenko (Mass General Hospital/Harvard Medical School)

The L​anguage ​N​etwork and ​I​ts ​P​lace within ​t​he ​B​roader Architecture of the Human Mind and Brain

Although many animal species have the ability to generate complex thoughts, only humans can share such thoughts with one another, via language. My research aims to understand i) the system that supports our linguistic abilities, including its neural implementation, and ii) its interfaces with the rest of the human cognitive arsenal. I will begin by introducing the “language network”, a set of interconnected brain regions that support language comprehension and production. With a focus on the subset of this network dedicated to high-level linguistic processing, I will then consider two questions. First, what is the internal structure of the language network? In particular, do different brain regions preferentially process different levels of linguistic structure (e.g., sound structure vs. syntactic/semantic compositional structure)? And second, how does the language network interact with other large-scale networks in the human brain, like the domain-general cognitive control network or the network that supports social cognition? To tackle these questions, I use behavioral, fMRI, and genotyping methods in healthy adults, as well as intracranial recordings from the cortical surfaces in humans undergoing presurgical mapping (ECoG), and studies of patients with brain damage. I will argue that: i) Linguistic representations are distributed across the language network, with no evidence for segregation of distinct kinds of linguistic information (i.e., phonological, lexical, and combinatorial – syntactic/semantic – information) in distinct regions of the network. Even aspects of language that have long been argued to preferentially rely on a specific region within the language network (e.g., syntactic processing being localized to parts of Broca’s area) turn out to be distributed across the network when measured with sufficiently sensitive tools. Further, the very same regions that are sensitive to high-level (e.g., syntactic) structure in language show sensitivity to lower-level (e.g., phonotactic) regularities. This picture is in line with much current theorizing in linguistics and the available behavioral psycholinguistic data that shows sensitivity to contingencies spanning sound-, word- and phrase-level structure. And: ii) The language network necessarily interacts with other large-scale networks, including prominently the domain-general cognitive control system. Nevertheless, the two systems appear to be functionally distinct given a) the differences in their functional response profiles (selective responses to language vs. responses to difficulty across a broad range of tasks), and b) distinct patterns of functional correlations. My ongoing work aims to characterize the computations performed by these systems – and other systems supporting high-level cognitive abilities – in order to understand the division of labor among them during language comprehension and production.

Colloquium (11/18/2015): Robert J. Podesva (Stanford University)

The Role of the Body in Structuring Sociophonetic Variation

Scholars of gesture and bodily hexis have long recognized the centrality of the body in speech production (Bourdieu 1984, McNeill 1992, Kendon 1997). Yet theories of variation have generally been constructed based on analyses of what can be observed in the audio channel alone (cf. Mendoza-Denton and Jannedy 2011). This paper draws on a multimodal analysis of audiovisual data to illustrate that voice quality and vowel quality are strongly constrained by body movement and facial expression.

Dyadic interactions between friends were recorded in a sound-attenuated environment staged like a living room. The acoustic analysis focuses on the incidence of creaky voice (using Kane et al.’s 2013 neural network model) and vowel quality (the lowering and retraction of the front lax vowels, in accordance with the California Vowel Shift). Computer vision techniques were applied to additionally quantify the magnitude of body movements (movement amplitude) and identify when speakers were smiling.

Results show that body movement and facial expression predict the realization of both linguistic variables. Creaky voice was more common in phrases where speakers moved less, in phrases where they were not smiling (for women), and in interactions where speakers reported feeling less comfortable. The front lax vowels were lower (more shifted) among women, and in phrases where speakers (regardless of sex) were smiling.

Speakers use their bodies in non-random ways to structure linguistic variation, so analysts can improve quantitative models of variation by attending to forms of embodied affect. Focusing on the body can also facilitate the development of more comprehensive social analyses of variation, many of which rely solely on correlations between linguistic practice and social category membership. I conclude by discussing the implications of an embodied view of variation for language change.

LingLang Lunch (12/2/2015): Wilson Silva (RIT)

The Desano Language Documentation Project: Fieldwork, Theory and Language Revitalization

Desano is an endangered Tukanoan language of the Vaupés region of Brazil. In this talk I will provide an overview of the Desano Language Documentation Project. I will discuss some of the Desano traits of linguistic interest (e.g., nasal harmony, noun classes, verb serialization, evidentiality) based on fieldwork data; and discuss the creation of digital animation (digital storytelling) based on Desano traditional narratives.

LingLang Lunch (2/24/2016): Peter Klecha (University of Connecticut)

Regulating Loose Talk through Implicature

This talk provides a formal pragmatic analysis of (im)precision which accounts for its essential properties, but also for Lewis’s (1979) observation of asymmetry in how standards of precision may shift in a given discourse: Only up, not down. I propose that shifts of the kind observed and discussed by Lewis are in fact cases of underlying disagreement about the standard of precision, which is only revealed when one interlocutor uses an expression which signals their adherence to a higher standard than the one adhered to be the other interlocutor(s). I show that a modest formal pragmatic analysis along the lines of game-theoretic approaches by Franke (2009), Jaeger (2012) and others can easily capture the natural asymmetry in standard-signaling that gives rise to Lewis’s observation, so long as such an account is enriched with a notion of relevance.