Tag Archives: Pragmatics

LingLang Lunch (9/26/2018): Mirjam Fried (Charles University in Prague)

Mirjam Fried is Associate Professor of Department of Linguistics at Charles University in Prague (CUNI). She is interested in the cognitive and functional aspects of language description and analysis. She investigates various aspects of morphology and morphosyntax from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. For more information, her website is here.

When main clauses go AWOL: a constructional account of polarity shifts in insubordination

The language of spontaneous dialog is an indispensable resource for elucidating the complex patterns of language production and reception (Levinson & Holler 2014). Moreover, the natural state of spoken language is its permanent variability, which makes a systematic description of its properties a real challenge, but at the same time offers an informative window into the ways new patterns and new categories may develop in interactional practice. The process of forming a new linguistic device is also the main concern of this talk, addressing the general question of how language users may recruit existing grammatical resources in order to create new linguistic patterns with new functions. I pursue the hypothesis that grammatical change originates in the interplay between a specific item and a concrete environment in which it is used and that the interaction helps shape the kind of change that eventually results.

Using material from the spoken corpora of the Czech National Corpus, I will illustrate these issues through a particular case so far largely untouched in relevant research: the usage of the word jestli ‘if/whether’ not in its etymologically motivated function as a syntactic complementizer (as in Nikdo neví, jestli to Martin udělá ‘Nobody knows if Martin will do it’) but in one of its non-propositional functions of expressing a subjective guess about something being likely (1) or unlikely (2); note also that the lexeme (in bold) tends to be phonetically reduced, sometimes quite drastically (1):

(1) esi vona nečekala na telefon

‘[I don’t’ know for sure but I think] she may’ve been waiting for a phone call.’

(lit. ‘if/whether she didn’t wait for a phone call’)

(2) jesi vůbec tam maj ňáký dřevo na topení

‘[I don’t’ know for sure but I don’t think] they many not have any wood to burn’.

(lit. ‘if/whether they have any wood at all for burning’)

These patterns exemplify one type of a cross-linguistically wide-spread and well-attested phenomenon known as insubordination (Evans 2007, 2009; Evans & Watanabi 2016), whereby an erstwhile subordinate clause introduced by a dedicated subordinating complementizer retains its form but loses its main clause and develops new conventional meanings. In this talk, I will concentrate on the cluster of questions concerning the gradual loss of the main clause (full clause > lexically fixed reduced clause > discourse particle > 0), specifically zeroing in on the resulting polarity patterns in the free-standing jestli-clauses; the use of negation is observably different from the regular syntactic counterparts. I suggest that the origins and development of insubordination must be analyzed primarily as an issue of discourse organization rather than from a purely syntactic perspective (such as loss of a paratactic structure or simple ellipsis of main clause), but with consequences for their syntactic behavior as well.

The analysis speaks to both typological and theoretical concerns. (i) It confirms that this subset of jestli-insubordination in conversational Czech can be related to the typology proposed by Evans in two of the three general categories: expressing a broad spectrum of modal meanings (here, subjective epistemic assessment, as in 1-2) and signaling presupposed material (negation and disagreement in 2). And (ii) from a broader theoretical perspective, insubordination makes a case for a particular approach to grammatical description, namely, one that takes into account both internal features of linguistic units and a ‘holistic’ perspective on specific conventionalized constellations of linguistic units. This multi-dimensional view is the basic conceptual tenet of constructional approaches and allows naturally for integrating both compositional and non-compositional properties of linguistic patterns.

LingLang Lunch (10/10/2012): Junwen Lee (Brown University)

A Unitary Analysis of Colloquial Singapore English Lah

The linguistic function of the Colloquial Singapore English (CSE) particle lah has been characterized variously as a marker to convey solidarity, warmth and informality; an attenuation or emphasis marker; an assertion marker; and an accommodation marker. As the particle can be pronounced using several pitch contours, the particle has generally been analyzed as either a set of homonymic variants that are distinguished by pitch and function, or a unitary particle that has the same meaning despite tonal differences. However, I argue against both approaches – the former conflates pragmatic function and semantic meaning, while the latter ignores the systematic differences in function that correlate with tonal differences. Instead, using a relevance-theoretic framework, I propose that the different pragmatic functions of lah result from the interaction between its unitary semantic meaning and the effect of pitch as signals of modality, specifically a falling tone that marks declaratives/imperatives and a rising tone that marks interrogatives. The advantages of this approach are also discussed in relation to another CSE particle hor, which similarly differs in pragmatic function depending on whether it is pronounced with a falling or rising tone.

LingLang Lunch (11/14/2012): Brian Dillon (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Syntactic complexity across the at-issue / not-at-issue divide

Much work in psycholinguistics has been dedicated to uncovering the source of complexity effects in syntactic processing (Chomsky & Miller 1963; Gibson, 1998; Levy, 2007; Lewis, 1996; Lewis & Vasishth, 2005; Yngve, 1960; i.a.). There are many theoretical accounts of syntactic complexity effects, starting from Chomsky and Miller’s (1963) observations on the difficulty of self-embedding, to the introduction of new discourse referents while simultaneously maintaining syntactic predictions (Gibson, 1998), among many others. One recent and influential model attempts to reduce syntactic complexity to interference effects related to memory retrieval (Lewis & Vasishth, 2005). In the present talk I present joint work with Lyn Frazier and Chuck Clifton that investigates the source of syntactic complexity by looking how the at-issue / not-at-issue distinction relates to syntactic complexity effects. Not-at-issue content like appositives and parentheticals do not directly contribute to the truth conditions of a sentence, and so have been argued to form a separate ‘dimension’ of meaning (Potts, 2005). In a series of judgment experiments, it is seen that syntactic complexity in the not-at-issue dimension does not lead to complexity effects in offline judgments, while complexity in at-issue content does. I then present eye-tracking data that helps to locate the source of the complexity effects in online comprehension. The results provide initial evidence that i) the parser distinguishes at-issue and not-at-issue content, and ii) the complexity effects observed in the present data cannot be reduced to retrieval interference. I suggest that at-issue / not-at-issue distinction is used to structure parsing routines by maintaining distinct stacks for different types of linguistic content, thereby minimizing complexity for the sentence as a whole.

LingLang Lunch (5/8/2013): Kathryn Davidson (University of Connecticut)

What can sign languages tell us about the semantic/pragmatic interface?

As adult language users, we are all aware that sometimes we mean exactly what we say, and sometimes we mean a lot more. Understanding precisely how language meaning arises from the complex interplay of semantics (what we say) and pragmatics (what we mean) is a difficult question. In this talk, I will focus on two phenomena at the semantic/pragmatic interface: scalar implicatures and the restriction of quantifier domains, from the point of view of American Sign Language (ASL), gaining new insights into the relationship of semantics and pragmatics based on the behavior of ASL. In the case of scalar implicatures, ASL makes frequent use of general use coordinators instead of separate lexical items “and” and “or,” which I show leads to strikingly fewer exclusive interpretations of disjunction than a lexically contrasting scale like English . In the case of quantifier domains, the gradient use of vertical space in ASL can provide clearer judgments about domains for quantification than the gradient options available in spoken languages, such as intonation. In both cases, I show how the manual/visual language modality allows linguists, philosophers, and psychologists to test important issues concerning the relationship of semantics and pragmatics in natural languages.

LingLang Lunch (10/2/2013): Josh Hartshorne (MIT)

Syntax, Semantics, World Knowledge, and Reference

Consider these examples from Winograd (1972):

(1) The city council denied the protesters a permit because they feared violence.
(2) The city council denied the protesters a permit because they advocated violence.

Most people reliably attribute different interpretations to they in (1-2), though in principle in each case the pronoun could refer to the city council, the protesters, or someone else. Levesque (2012) has argued that solving such sentences draws on such a wide range of cognitive abilities that it is an even stronger test of human intelligence than the original Turing Test.

Psycholinguists, too, have been interested in ambiguous pronouns. In 1974, Garvey and Caramazza demonstrated that people have strong expectations about the meanings of pronouns even without having heard the potentially critical end of the sentence:

(3) The city council denied the protesters a permit because they…
(4) Sally frightened Mary because she…
(5) Alfred liked Bernard because he…

These intuitions can be modified by such a bewildering range of contextual manipulations that here, too, many commentators resorted to attributing pronoun reference to inference over ill-specified concepts such as “event structure” (Pickering & Majid, 2007) or “salience” (Song & Fisher, 2004).

In this talk, while I concede that pronoun reference is very difficult and that, in the limit, it requires a broad swath of cognition, we nonetheless are already in a position to say quite a lot about it. Much of the complexity of the phenomena reduce to the interactions of a small number of abstract structures in semantics and discourse. I demonstrate this with a combination of experiments and computational modeling.

LingLang Lunch (10/29/2013): Scott AnderBois (Brown University)

On the exceptional status of reportative evidentials

Evidentials are morphemes found regularly in ~25% of the world’s languages which encode the speaker’s grounds for making a particular claim, p, i.e. what sort of evidence they have that has led them to assert p. Some common types of evidential meanings include: direct visual, direct non-visual, conjectural, reportative, deduction from direct evidence of a result state, and deduction from general world knowledge. Given the common characterization of evidentials as providing the grounds for an assertion (of some sort) that p, we expect that it should be infelicitous or contradictory for a speaker who has uttered an evidential assertion, EVID(p), to deny that p is the case.

While this expectation is consistently borne out for most evidentials, we show that reportative evidentials – i.e. those which indicate that the speaker’s source is what some second or third party has told them – consistently do allow for exactly this. Whereas previous authors have proposed semantic accounts for such data, we argue that these exceptional cases are due to pragmatic perspective-shift. Such shifts are only readily possible in the case of reportatives since they introduce another perspectival agent, whereas other evidentials (even including intuitively ‘weaker’ ones like conjecturals) do not. Beyond explaining the cross-linguistic behavior of reportatives, I argue the proposal also makes correct predictions for languages like Bulgarian where a single evidential form has both reportative and inferential uses.

LingLang Lunch (2/19/2014): Nathaniel Smith (University of Edinburgh)

Building a Bayesian bridge between the physics and the phenomenology of social interaction

What is word meaning, and where does it live? Both naive intuition and scientific theories in fields such as discourse analysis and socio- and cognitive linguistics place word meanings, at least in part, outside the head: in important ways, they are properties of speech communities rather than individual speakers. Yet, from a neuroscientific perspective, we know that actual speakers and listeners have no access to such consensus meanings: the physical processes which generate word tokens in usage can only depend directly on the idiosyncratic goals, history, and mental state of a single individual. It is not clear how these perspectives can be reconciled. This gulf is thrown into sharp perspective by current Bayesian models of language processing: models of learning have taken the former perspective, and models of pragmatic inference and implicature have taken the latter. As a result, these two families of models, though built using the same mathematical framework and often by the same people, turn out to contain formally incompatible assumptions.

Here, I’ll present the first Bayesian model which can simultaneously learn word meanings and perform pragmatic inference. In addition to capturing standard phenomena in both of these literatures, it gives insight into how the literal meaning of words like “some” can be acquired from observations of pragmatically strengthened uses, and provides a theory of how novel, task-appropriate linguistic conventions arise and persist within a single dialogue, such as occurs in the well-known phenomenon of lexical alignment. Over longer time scales such effects should accumulate to produce language change; however, unlike traditional iterated learning models, our simulated agents do not converge on a sample from their prior, but instead show an emergent bias towards belief in more useful lexicons. Our model also makes the interesting prediction that different classes of implicature should be differentially likely to conventionalize over time. Finally, I’ll argue that the mathematical “trick” needed to convince word learning and pragmatics to work together in the same model is in fact capturing a real truth about the psychological mechanisms needed to support human culture, and, more speculatively, suggest that it may point the way towards a general mechanism for reconciling qualitative, externalist theories of social interaction with quantitative, internalist models of low-level perception and action, while preserving the key claims of both approaches.

LingLang Lunch (3/12/2014): Livia Polanyi (Stanford University)

Step-wise Discourse Topic Construction (joint work with Trevor Doherty and Katherine Hinton)

In 1975, Harvey Sacks, the pioneering Conversational Analyst, noted that conversation usually flows in a stepwise manner so that whatever is being introduced links up to what has just been talked about in a way that, though we’re far from where we began, as far as anybody knows, a new topic has not been started. In this way, I propose a formalization of the flow of conversation based on a novel approach to Discourse Topic (DT), and to the mechanics of Discourse Coherence, another intuitively useful pre-theoretic construct. DT, a notion often invoked to label stretches of text that seems to “go together”, is treated as an abstract, dynamic phenomenon of various levels of granularity that emerges from feature representations of sequenced individual utterances. Under this approach, Discourse Coherence, is a scalar notion: a next utterance will shift DT either suddenly when a number of features change simultaneously or more gradually when fewer features shift. Minimal shifts thus result in more coherent discourse, while more radical shifts are less so. A model of musical development is used to illustrate both the conversational phenomenon and the representational formalism we use to account for conversational topic flow. Theoretical challenges to the Linguistic Discourse Model (Polanyi et al.) and Structured Discourse Representation Theory (Asher and Lascarides) in which an Open Right Edge Tree of discourse units is used to account for discourse anaphora will be raised but, alas, left unresolved.

LingLang Lunch (3/19/2014): Shiri Lev Ari (Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen)

How expectations influence language processing, and their cognitive and social consequences: The case of processing the language of non-native speakers

Non-native language is less reliable in conveying the speakers’ intentions, and listeners know and expect that. I propose that these expectations of lower competence lead listeners to adjust their processing when listening to non-native speakers by increasing their reliance on top-down processes and sufficing with less detailed processing of the language, but only if they have the cognitive resources to do so. I will first show evidence supporting these claims, and then show that the adjustment to non-native speakers temporarily alters the way all language, including one’s own, is processed. I will end by showing one of the social consequences of the adjustment in processing – better perspective-taking when listening to non-native speakers.

LingLang Lunch (4/16/2014): Lee Edelist (Brown University)

Pronoun resolution in multi-utterance discourse

This talk will look at several pragmatic theories of pronoun resolution (Centering, Accessibility theory and Coherence-based theory), will identify how they complement each other, and point out what is still not accounted for. Mainly, all of these theories focus on examples that consist of one or two consecutive utterances. Natural discourse, though, is not limited to two-utterance stints. I’ll show that when co-reference is carried over multiple utterances, the rules are a bit different than what has been described thus far. Finally, I’ll discuss a proposed study that will observe readers’ judgments of the identity of pronoun referents in conditions when different theories hold conflicting predictions.