Tag Archives: Pragmatics

LingLang Lunch (4/30/2014): Jill Thorson (Brown University)

How intonation interacts with new and given information to guide attention

Toddlers are sensitive to native language rhythm and pitch patterns. From the beginnings of production, they approximate adult-like intonation contours and align them with appropriate semantic/pragmatic intentions. The motivation for our study is to investigate how English-acquiring 18-month-olds are guided by mappings from intonation to information structure during on-line reference resolution in a discourse. We ask whether specific pitch movements (deaccented/monotonal/bitonal) more systematically predict patterns of attention depending on the referring condition (new/given). Additionally, this experiment isolates the role of pitch in directing attention, keeping duration and intensity constant across conditions. Contrary to previous work, results show longer looking times to the target over a distractor in the deaccented condition if the referent is new to the discourse but not if it is given. Also, the bitonal pitch movement directs attention to the target even when it is given in the discourse. Thus, pitch type is interacting with new and given information in directing toddler attention. Analyzing how higher-level components combine to direct attention to a referent during discourse aids in explaining the mechanisms that are important for language and word learning.

LingLang Lunch (10/29/2014): Sophia Malamud (Brandeis University)

Utterance modifiers and the emergence of illocutionary force

Recent years have seen much research addressing expressions whose contribution to meaning seems to modify the illocutionary force of an utterance, rather than its truth-conditions. These expressions range from clause-type morphology (e.g. Portner 2007, Starr 2010), to utterance-level adverbial modifiers (Potts 2005; Scheffler 2008, among others), to discourse connectives (e.g. Blakemore 2002; Webber 2004), to evidentials (e.g., Murray 2009, 2014). This research has shown that the tools of formal semantics are useful in modelling grammatical constraints on illocutionary force. It has also shown that illocutionary force modifiers can provide insight into a number of questions that arise at the semantics-pragmatics interface: Which aspects of illocutionary force arise compositionally from the grammatical meaning of the utterance and the modifier, and which aspects are computed through general reasoning based on speakers’ assumptions about rationality? Do context and rationality serve simply to resolve underspecified or ambiguous grammatical representations, or do they provide additional meaning above and beyond the literal and direct? Is (in)directness a categorical distinction, or is it a gradient – and if the latter, how can this be modelled? What are the universals and what is the cross-linguistic variation in the way illocutionary force is conveyed?

I explore these questions using Mandarin particle ba, as well as English tag questions and rising intonation; time permitting, I will suggest a follow-up study using English please and its Russian translational equivalent požalujsta. The Mandarin particle ba occurs with a variety of speech acts and clause types, typically declarative and imperative, but in rare cases interrogative as well. The English reverse-polarity tags (John is here, isn’t he?) occur with declarative utterances, as does rising intonation (John is here↑) which also occurs in other types of utterances (Congratulations↑). English please and its Russian translational equivalent požalujsta are canonically used in imperative requests, but occur in other clause types (Can you help me, please?) and other speech acts (Can I sit?—Please do.).

I build on my prior work (Ettinger and Malamud 2013, Malamud and Stephenson 2014, inter alia) to offer a model of conversation where a unified semantics of clause types (cf. Starr 2010) constrains the range of interpretations for an utterance. A pragmatic conversational scoreboard tracks speakers’ public commitments to propositions, issues, and actions/preferences (cf. Farkas & Roelofsen forthcoming). These commitments constitute a target for collaborative updates; conversational moves may fall short of this target. Moves that fall short place their at-issue content on different parts of the Table, depending on the degree of authority the speaker and the hearer exercise over this content. Mandarin ba signals a lower degree of speaker authority, and potentially higher degree of hearer authority than would otherwise be expected for assertions and requests; pragmatic reasoning then derives the various effects of the utterance modifier.

LingLang Lunch (11/5/2014): Chigusa Kurumada (University of Rochester)

Expectation-adaptation in the incremental interpretation of English contrastive prosody (In collaboration with Meredith Brown, Tufts University/Massachusetts General Hospital, and Michael K. Tanenhaus, University of Rochester)

The realization of prosody varies across speakers, accents, and speech conditions (e.g., Ladd, 2008). Listeners must navigate this variability to converge on consistent prosodic interpretations. We investigate whether listeners adapt to speaker-specific realization of prosody based on recent exposure and, if so, whether such adaptation is rapidly integrated with online pragmatic processing. To this end, we investigate contrastive focus, which can signal that pragmatic inference is required to determine speaker meaning (e.g., Ito & Speer, 2008; Pierrehumbert & Hirschberg, 1990; Watson et al., 2008).

In this talk, I first present results of an off-line judgement experiment using a paradigm developed to investigate implicit learning in phoneme categorization (e.g., Kraljic, Samuel & Brennan, 2008; Norris, McQueen & Cutler, 2003). The results suggest that listeners rapidly adapt their pragmatic interpretation of contrastive focus to best reflect speaker-specific realizations of prosodic cues (e.g., pitch and segment duration). I then discuss results from two eye-tracking experiments. We find that changes in the reliability of prosodic cues (estimated based on recent exposure) are reflected in changes in processing time-course: When a contrastive focus is deemed unreliable as a cue to a contrastive interpretation, listeners effectively down-weight it in their comprehension of following utterances. We conclude that such rapid recalibration of prosodic interpretations enables listeners to achieve robust online pragmatic interpretation of highly variable prosodic information.

LingLang Lunch (11/19/2014): Scott AnderBois (Brown University)

The discourse particle wal in Yucatec Maya: a decompositional approach

Dating back to the philosopher David Lewis, it has been common to think of discourse in terms of a shared “scoreboard” comprising various information about who has said what, what things we know, what our goals are, etc. Discourse particles are elements in sentences which intuitively do not contribute to the content of sentences in which they occur, but rather make reference to the discourse scoreboard itself (e.g. English oh; German ja, doch; Japanese yo, ne). They thus provide a unique lens into understanding the structure of the discourse scoreboard and the ways in which speakers’ utterances interact with it. In this talk, I focus on one particular discourse particle, wal, in Yucatec Maya (an indigenous language of Mexico). Wal serves many seemingly quite different functions. In declaratives, it conveys uncertainty in some cases, but a warning or threat in others. In imperatives, it does two seemingly opposite things: “softening” an imperative to a permission or offer in some cases, and, again, conveying a warning or threat in others. I develop an analysis in which wal has a uniform meaning, serving to highlight a decision problem the hearer faces following the speaker’s turn. The various functions of wal, then, are argued to arise from the interaction of this meaning with intonation, aspects of the utterance in which it occurs, and reasoning based on world knowledge.

LingLang Lunch (3/4/2015): Tania Rojas-Esponda (Stanford University)

Discourse particles and focus effects in a question-under-discussion framework

Discourse particles provide important signals in conversation, by helping speakers and hearers coordinate on the course of an interaction. Therefore, a precise understanding of discourse particles will provide new insights into the pragmatics of conversation. I will present a framework based on questions under discussion that allows us to capture the key information-theoretic structures in conversation that seem to affect the use of discourse particles: the presence or absence of presuppositions, the issues guiding a conversation, and how interlocutors move between these issues. In this talk, I will present two case studies of German discourse particles that highlight central aspects of the QUD framework: ‘überhaupt’ and ‘doch.’ These raise a challenge found in particle systems in many languages: lexicalized focus. Many languages possess particles that can occur with or without focus, and the meanings associated with the unfocused and focused variants are often very different. Since intonation can have discourse-managing functions similar to that of discourse particles, the effect of having or lacking focus marking directly *on* a particle is different from the effect of focus on regular content words. I will identify patterns that allow us to systematically distinguish the meanings of focused and unfocused particles in a focused/unfocused pair. This serves as a stepping stone towards understanding the interplay of grammar, intonation, and interaction.

LingLang Lunch (4/1/2015): Junwen Lee (Brown University)

Lah revisited – A modal analysis

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, I propose that lah is a modal particle that conveys the not-at-issue comment that the lah-marked proposition is entailed by the conjunction of all factors that make a difference to its truth, which is then interpreted by the addressee as justification for the speaker’s lah-marked assertion. In other words, if we consider all the factors that affect the likelihood of the lah-marked proposition p being true to be the set of evidence that together underwrite the speaker’s assertion of p, then lah indicates that this set of evidence is completely reliable in predicting p. However, unlike previous unitary analyses, I propose that this single particle meaning then interacts with a separate effect of intonation to produce the different pragmatic functions that have been observed in the literature.

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.

Colloquium (3/23/2016): Jean E. Fox Tree (University of California, Santa Cruz)

The Usefulness of Useless Utterances: Why Um, Like, and Other Disparaged Phenomena are not Superfluous

Spontaneous communication differs from prepared communication in what is said, how it is said, and how talk develops based on addressee responses. Spontaneously produced phenomena such as ums, likes, and rising intonation on declarative sentences, or uptalk, are often vilified, but they have specific functions. In addition to what is said and how it is said, spontaneous communication involves responding to contributions from interlocutors. Even the shortest of addressee responses, such as the choice between uh huh versus oh, affects speaker production and overhearer comprehension. Differences between quotation devices, such as said versus like, also reflect functional choices. Because many spontaneous phenomena do not appear in carefully constructed communication, there has been a mistaken conclusion that they are uninformative. In fact, however, spontaneous phenomena are solutions to problems encountered in unplanned, unrehearsed communication.