Tag Archives: Syntax

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 (9/25/2012): Geoffrey K. Pullum (University of Edinburgh)

Psychology and the Claimed Infinitude of Sentences

Some linguists take it to be an established universal that human languages have infinitely many sentences. I explore their reasons for believing this. I argue that no evidence could support or refute the infinitude claim; no convincing argument has been advanced for its truth; no consequences would follow from it; it might not be universally true anyway; and there are no significant consequences for psychology if that is the case. I focus especially on the supposed link between the infinitude claim and “creative” human cognitive abilities such as being able to come up with new utterances that are appropriate to context.

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 (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 (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 (2/4/2015): Philip Hofmeister (Brown University)

Expectations and linguistic acceptability judgments

A growing and convergent body of evidence points to the role of expectations in online language processing and learning. This evidence includes data which indicate that processing efficiency for various sentential constructions can be improved by making them more expected (viz., more frequent) in a linguistic context (Wells et al 2009; Fine et al 2013). Here, I consider how expectations bear on acceptability judgments and, more specifically, shifts in acceptability judgment patterns. The hypothesis under consideration is that acceptability judgment responses reflect expectations based on previous experience. A prediction of such a hypothesis is that judgments for such constructions are mutable. In a series of acceptability tasks, I illustrate that participants systematically alter their responses over the course of the experiment, such that relatively unacceptable constructional variants improve with repetition. This holds across a range of data including sentences with case errors, resumptive pronouns, island violations, center-embeddings, and more. I will construe this to mean that judgments, like a variety of other response types, are sensitive to probabilistic factors and I will point to the implications of such findings for our understanding of grammatical change.

LingLang Lunch (4/30/2015): Eladio Mateo Toledo (B’alam) (CIESAS-Sureste, México)

The Destinative Construction in Q’anjob’al (Maya)

Purpose constructions involve two situations linked by a purposive relation where a situation, expressed by the matrix predicate, is performed with the intention/goal of obtaining the realization of another situation, the purpose clause (Cristofaro 2005:506, Schmidtke-Bode 2009:20, Verstraete 2008:764). Therefore, they involve intentionality on the part of an argument of the main clause; the purpose clause is intrinsically future oriented; and the outcome is intended or hypothetical. These features are illustrated in (1) (based on Simonin 2011:2).

(1) A monkey picked leaves or fruit in order to eat them, but it never ate them,
     though that was certainly its intention.

Q’anjob’al has two purpose constructions: motion-cum purpose and a finite purpose clause. In this talk, I present a related construction that I call the destinative construction (2).

(2) a. Max-ach             y-i-teq                     ix         s-q’ume-j
          com-abs2sg       erg3-bring-dir       clf       erg3-talk-tv
          ‘She brought you to talk to you.’
      b. Ay-ach             ek’        j-ante-j
          exs-abs2sg       dir       erg1pl-cure-tv
          ‘You are here for us to cure.’

Analyzing this construction as a purpose clause is problematic because intentionality is not necessary, as in (2b). Furthermore, person inflection is rigidly transitive or intransitive in Q’anjob’al but this construction violates it as the second verb, otherwise transitive, lacks a second person argument. However, this inflectional pattern also occurs in complex predicates like the ditransitive one in 3).

(3)  Ch-ach             ul             hin-say                   w-il-a’
      inc-abs2sg       come       erg1s-look.for       erg1s-see-tv
      ‘I come to look for you (for myself).’ {txt062}

I have three goals in this talk. Following Simonin’s (2011) work on English and that of Polian et.al. (2015) on Maya, I firstly show that (2) is a destinative construction and not a purpose clause (‘the construction denotes a situation where the matrix verb makes available an entity that is earmarked for a particular use, specified by the second verb’). Second, I show that the Q’anjob’al destinative and the English weak purpose clause, with different syntax, are licensed by the same types of predicates. I finally show that the Q’anjob’al destinative clause has features of both complex clauses and complex predicates; this makes it unique in Q’anjob’al and Maya.

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.