CRL Happy Half Hour @ 3:30 in CSB 215
CRL Talk @ 4:00 in CSB 280
Investigating semantic structure with structural priming
Structural priming, or the tendency to repeat aspects of sentence structure across utterances, provides strong evidence for the existence of abstract structural representations in language (Bock, 1986; for reviews, see, e.g., Branigan & Pickering, 2016; Pickering & Ferreira, 2008). Despite a general consensus that structural priming is primarily a syntactic phenomenon (Bock, 1989; Bock & Loebell, 1990; Chang et al., 2006; Branigan & Pickering, 2016; Branigan et al., 1995), I’ll present (further) evidence that semantic structure can be isolated and primed independently of syntax. Then, I’ll leverage structural priming as a tool to ask specific questions about the nature of these semantic representations—specifically, to what degree do different classes of verbs share or not share the same semantic core? And what, if anything, can this tell us about the mental representation of linguistic meaning? For this, I’ll use datives and locatives as a particularly compelling test case (think: Localist Hypothesis; Jackendoff, 1983). I’ll conclude with lessons learned and future directions.
Eva Wittenberg has been awarded a UC San Diego Social Sciences Divisional Research Grant for her project “Linguistic Anaphora to Situations And Grammatically Neuter Entities (LASAGNE)”!
Ray Jackendoff and Eva Wittenberg had their paper Linear grammar as a possible steppingstone in the evolution of language accepted in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. Here is the abstract:
We suggest that one way to approach the evolution of language is through reverse engineering: asking what components of the language faculty could have been useful in the absence of the full complement of components. We explore the possibilities offered by linear grammar, a form of language that lacks syntax and morphology altogether, and that structures its utterances through a direct mapping between semantics and phonology. A language with a linear grammar would have no syntactic categories or syntactic phrases, and therefore no syntactic recursion. It would also have no functional categories such as tense, agreement, and case inflection, and no derivational morphology. Such a language would still be capable of conveying certain semantic relations through word order—for instance by stipulating that agents should precede patients. However, many other semantic relations would have to be based on pragmatics and discourse context. We find evidence of linear grammar in a wide range of linguistic phenomena: pidgins, stages of late second language acquisition, home signs, village sign languages, language comprehension (even in fully syntactic languages), aphasia, and specific language impairment. We also find a full-blown language, Riau Indonesian, whose grammar is arguably close to a pure linear grammar. In addition, when subjects are asked to convey information through nonlinguistic gesture, their gestures make use of semantically based principles of linear ordering. Finally, some pockets of English grammar, notably compounds, can be characterized in terms of linear grammar. We conclude that linear grammar is a plausible evolutionary precursor of modern fully syntactic grammar, one that is still active in the human mind.
Andreas Trotzke and Eva Wittenberg had their paper Expressive particle verbs and conditions on particle fronting accepted in the Journal of Linguistics. Here is the abstract:
In this paper, we propose a new distinction between expressive and non-expressive particle verbs in German. The basic observation for our proposal is that these two classes behave differently in the domain of particle fronting. In order to explain this difference, we will show that certain particle verbs are extreme degree expressions and that, therefore, a possible contrast across degrees makes fronting acceptable, even when the particle in isolation is non-contrastable. Our claims are supported by a rating study probing German native speakers’ intuitions about the likelihood of the occurrence of an utterance, without relying on acceptability judgments. We connect these new findings to other forms of non-information-structural fronting patterns that endow utterances with an emphatic flavor.
Please find the PDF’s of these papers on our Publications site.
Our lab will be represented at CUNY with two posters:
Ziegler, J., Snedeker, J. & Wittenberg, E. 2017. Different paths from structure to event construal in idiomatic, semi-idiomatic, and fully transparent expression.
Morgan, A., von der Malsburg, T., Ferreira, V. S. & Wittenberg, E. 2017. This is the structure that we wonder why anyone produces it: Resumptive pronouns in English help production but hinder comprehension.
Eva Wittenberg and Roger Levy had their paper If you want a quick kiss, make it count: How choice of syntactic construction affects event construal accepted in the Journal of Memory and Language. Here is the abstract:
When we hear an event description, our mental construal is not only based on lexical items, but also on the message’s syntactic structure. This has been well-studied in the domains of causation, event participants, and object conceptualization. Less studied are the construals of temporality and numerosity as a function of syntax. We present a theory of how syntax affects the construal of event similarity and duration in a way that is systematically predictable from the interaction of mass/count syntax and verb semantics, and test these predictions in six studies. Punctive events in count syntax (give a kiss) and durative events in mass syntax (give advice) are construed as taking less time than in transitive frame (kiss and advise). Durative verbs in count syntax (give a talk), however, result in a semantic shift, orthogonal to duration estimates. These results demonstrate how syntactic and semantic structure together systematically affect event construal.<\font>
Please find the authors’ PDF on our Publications site.
Jeremy Skipper (University College London) and Eva Wittenberg received a small grant from the Global Engagement Fund at UCL to deepen their collaboration on how spatial and temporal activation patterns in the brain can predict pronoun resolution. The grant will serve as seed funding for mutual visits in order to plan a behavioral pilot study, and a series of neuroimaging studies.
How do speakers get from thought to language? How do comprehenders get from form to meaning? What are the biological underpinnings of this magical process? How did evolution get us here? What is the best way to test our hypotheses on language and cognition?
Those are the questions that the Language Comprehension Lab at UCSD seeks to answer. We are a new lab, and we are looking for curious, interested, quick-thinking and independent students to assist in all tasks relevant to running a lab: designing, programming and running experimental studies; literature searches, scheduling and organizing; asking questions and thinking about ways of answering them. If you join us, you will be an integral part of our lab-building process. Some of the tasks will be boring, some of them will be exciting, but you will definitely learn something.
Eva Wittenberg has written a short chapter about “unasked questions”, which will appear in an edited volume that is assembling a collection of questions that are simply unasked in science — unasked, because the answer seems obvious, because they’re taboo, or because, if we ask them, we are threatening the warm fuzzy feeling that knowing something for sure can create. If you speak German, you might enjoy it!