Tag Archives: Semantics

Welcome Roman Feiman!!!!!!

The Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences (CLPS) is delighted to welcome our new psycholinguist Roman Feiman who joins us as of September, 2018 as an Assistant Professor.  Roman received his PhD in Psychology from Harvard University in 2015. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard for a year, and at UC San Diego for another two. His work draws on a variety of approaches and methods from cognitive developmental psychology, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and formal semantics. Now at Brown, he directs the brand new Brown Language and Thought lab. You can find the lab here: https://sites.brown.edu/bltlab/

Over the next few years Roman will be teaching – among other things – courses on language processing (CLPS 1800), on child language acquisition of syntax, semantics and pragmatics (CLPS 1660), a seminar on Logic in Language and Thought, and co-teaching with Ellie Pavlich a course on Machine and Human Learning. Stay tuned for other courses.  Welcome Roman!

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 (9/18/2013): Eva Wittenberg (Tufts University)

Close but no cigar: The differences between kissing, giving kisses, and giving other things

Light verb constructions, such as “Julius is giving Ellie a kiss”, create a mismatch at the syntax-semantics interface. Typically, each argument in a sentence corresponds to one semantic role, such as in “Julius is giving Ellie a present”, where Julius is the Source, Ellie the Goal, and the present the Theme. However, a light verb construction such as “Julius is giving Ellie a kiss” with three arguments describes the same event as the transitive “Julius kissed Ellie” with two arguments: Julius is the Agent, and Ellie the Patient.
This leads to several questions: First, how are light verb constructions such as “giving a kiss” processed differently from sentences such as “giving a present” ? Second, at which structural level of representation would we find sources of this difference? Third, what is the effect of using a light verb construction such as “giving a kiss” as opposed to “kissing” on the event representation created in a listener? I will present data from an ERP study, an eye-tracking study, and several behavioral studies to answer these questions.

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 (10/15/2013): Scott AnderBois (Brown University)

A transitivity-based split in Yucatec Maya control complements (joint work with Grant Armstrong, University of Wisconsin)

In a wide variety of environments (e.g. counterfactual antecedents, optatives, different subject irrealis complements), Yucatec Maya (YM) has both transitive and intransitive verb forms which have traditionally been labeled ‘subjunctive’. Semantically, we expect to find such complements in complements to control predicates such as ‘want’ and ‘try’. What we find, however, is that this expectation is met only for complements which are syntactically transitive (e.g. ‘I want to eat it.’), but not for those which are intransitive (e.g. ‘I want to eat’). The transitive complements include subjunctive verb forms as well as showing agreement by both the object and the control subject and is therefore an instance of so-called `copy control’. Intransitive control complements, however, show neither agreement marker and no subjunctive verb form, with the verb instead appearing as a bare stem in citation form.

In this talk, we propose an account of this split based on independently observable properties of agreement in YM together with the Movement Theory of Control (Hornstein 1999, Hornstein and Polinsky 2010 inter alia). First, we develop a clausal syntax for a variety of YM clauses in which absolutive arguments, including intransitive subjunctive subjects, remain low in the clause. Second, we show that this independently motivated syntax together with a particular approach to control predicts the ungrammaticality of intransitive subjunctive control complements. Finally, we argue that the attested bare forms are in fact nominalizations and therefore have a quite different syntax than the transitives.

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 (2/26/2014): Jeff Runner (University of Rochester)

Binding constraints on processing: pronouns are harder than reflexives (In collaboration with Kellan Head, Teach For America, and Kim Morse, University of Rochester)

In this talk I will present the results of a visual world eye-tracking experiment designed to test two claims in the literature: (a) that the binding theory is a set of “linked” constraints as in the classic binding theory (Chomsky 1981) and HPSG’s binding theory (Sag, Wasow & Bender 2003); and (b) that the binding theory applies as an initial filter on processing (Nicol & Swinney 1989, Sturt 2003). Our results instead support two different claims: (a) that the constraint(s) on pronouns and the constraint(s) on reflexives are separate constraints that apply differently and with different timelines, in line with “primitives of binding” theory, Reuland (2001, 2011); and (b) that neither constraint applies as an initial filter on processing, as in Badecker & Straub (2001). In particular the results show clearly that the resolution of the appropriate antecedent for pronouns is delayed compared to that of reflexives. This project started as an examination of the on-line effects of the constraints of the binding theory, developing an approach based on Nicol & Swinney 1989, Badecker & Straub 2001, and Sturt 2003. Recent work, however, implicates the critical role of memory access in reflexive interpretation (Dillon et al. 2013). Thus, I will also try to relate the current results to current models of memory access.

LingLang Lunch (4/9/2014): Kyle Rawlins (Johns Hopkins University)

‘About’ attitudes

A central problem in the linguistic analysis of attitude reports since Grimshaw (1979) is the relationship between argument structure, selectional ‘frames’, and the lexical semantics of attitude predicates. While it is often acknowledged that an account of the lexical semantics of these predicates should apply across frames, at a practical level most analyses take the classical (and roughly, post-Hintikkan) strategy of assuming different lexical entries for different argument structures. In this talk I examine the problem through the lens of the interaction of attitude predicates with `about’ phrases, as in (1-3):

(1) Alfonso knows about {Joanna / why Joanna was late}.
(2) Alfonso wondered about {Joanna / why Joanna was late}.
(3) Alfonso lied about {Joanna / why Joanna was late}.

I show that ‘about’ phrases are extremely productive and systematic, show up in a substantial range of contexts beyond the verbal, and require a compositional analysis (contra Pesetsky 1982). Moreover, they require an analysis that cross-cuts other selectional properties of attitude predicates, i.e. they cannot be reduced to any particular alternative frame, such as question embedding. The facts about ‘about’ lead to an analysis on which attitude verbs are (following Kratzer 2006, Hacquard 2006 a.o.) neo-Davidsonian predicates. ‘About’-phrases indicate the relationship (formalized in Lewis’s 1988 theory of aboutness) between the ‘content’ of an attitude/report/etc eventuality, and an issue characterized by the internal argument of ‘about’. This naturally leads to an analysis of the semantics of the argument structure of attitude predicates where, following Kratzer (2006), all apparent arguments compose via applicative-like operations encoded by items such as ‘that’, ‘about’, and the Q operator, and argument structure differences do not stand in the way of a unified cross-frame analysis of attitude predicates.