LingLang Lunch (9/27/2017): Richard Futrell (MIT)

Richard Futrell’s research focuses on explaining linguistic universals and variation in terms of facilitating efficient and robust communication. For more information, his website is here.

Memory and Locality in Natural Language

I explore the hypothesis that the universal properties of human languages can be explained in terms of efficient communication given fixed human information processing constraints. First, I show corpus evidence from 37 languages that word order in grammar and usage is shaped by working memory constraints in the form of dependency locality: a pressure for syntactically linked words to be close to one another in linear order. Next, I develop a new theory of human language processing cost, based on rational inference in a noisy channel, that unifies surprisal and memory effects and goes beyond dependency locality to a new principle of information locality: that words that predict each other should be close. I show corpus evidence for information locality. Finally, I show that the new processing model resolves a long-standing paradox in the psycholinguistic literature, structural forgetting, where the effects of memory appear to be language-dependent.