Welcome, Alessandro Caiola!

Alessandro Caiola, a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at Sapienza Università di Roma and Università degli Studi Roma Tre, is visiting the Language Comprehension Lab for four months, until February.
Alessandro’s work focuses on the theory and processing of phenomena at the semantics-syntax interface. While here, he is developing a number of studies investigating the construal of event structure in different light verb constructions.

Welcome Alessandro!

New paper in Frontiers in Psychology!

Eva Wittenberg, Manizeh Khan & Jesse Snedeker just had an article accepted in Frontiers in Psychology:

Investigating thematic roles through implicit learning: Evidence from light verb constructions

The syntactic structure of a sentence is usually a strong predictor of its meaning: Each argument noun phrase (i.e., Subject and Object) should map onto exactly one thematic role (i.e., Agent and Patient, respectively). Some constructions, however, are exceptions to this pattern. This paper investigates how the syntactic structure of an utterance contributes to its construal, using ditransitive English light verb constructions, such as “Nils gave a hug to his brother”, as an example of such mismatches: Hugging is a two-role event, but the ditransitive syntactic structure suggests a three-role event. Data from an eye-tracking experiment and behavioral categorization data reveal that listeners learn to categorize sentences according to the number of thematic roles they convey, independent of their syntax. Light verb constructions, however, seem to form a category of their own, in which the syntactic structure leads listeners down an initial incorrect assignment of thematic roles, from which they only partly recover. These results suggest an automatic influence of syntactic argument structure on semantic interpretation and event construal, even in highly frequent constructions.

Read the paper here (Open Access)!

LCL @ AMLaP 2017!

The Language Comprehension Lab will have a talk at AMLaP 2017 in Lancaster, UK:

Complexity matters only when it matters: Pronominal object and event reference rapidly access different aspects of situation models.
Talk by Eva Wittenberg, Shota Momma, Elsi Kaiser, & Jeremy Skipper.

Jayden Ziegler visiting the lab, and giving a talk at CRL!

Jayden Ziegler, one of our lab’s collaborators, is visiting us and giving a CRL talk on 5/9!

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.

New papers in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review and Journal of Linguistics!

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.

LCL @ CUNY 2017!

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.

New paper in Journal of Memory and Language!

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.