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Research

Research at our top-ranked department spans syntax, semantics, phonology, language acquisition, computational linguistics, psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics. 

Connections between our core competencies are strong, with theoretical, experimental and computational work typically pursued in tandem.

A network of collaboration at all levels sustains a research climate that is both vigorous and friendly. Here new ideas develop in conversation, stimulated by the steady activity of our labs and research groups, frequent student meetings with faculty, regular talks by local and invited scholars and collaborations with the broader University of Maryland language science community, the largest and most integrated language science research community in North America.

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Morphology in Austronesian languages

Postdoc Ted Levin and Professor Maria Polinsky provide an overview of morphology in Austronesian languages.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Theodore Levin
Dates:
This is an overview of the major morphological properties of Austronesian languages. We present and analyze data that may bear on the commonly discussed lexical-category neutrality of Austronesian and suggest that Austronesian languages do differentiate between core lexical categories. We address the difference between roots and stems showing that Austronesian roots are more abstract than roots traditionally discussed in morphology. Austronesian derivation and inflexion rely on suffixation and prefixation; some infixation is also attested. Austronesian languages make extensive use of reduplication. In the verbal system, main morphological exponents mark voice distinctions as well as causatives and applicatives. In the nominal domain, the main morphological exponents include case markers, classifiers, and possession markers. Overall, verbal morphology is richer in Austronesian languages than nominal morphology. We also present a short overview of empirically and theoretically challenging issues in Austronesian morphology: the status of infixes and circumfixes, the difference between affixes and clitics, and the morphosyntactic characterization of voice morphology.

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Filler-gap dependency comprehension at 15 months: The role of vocabulary

New evidence from preferential looking suggests that 15 month olds can correctly understand wh-questions and relative clauses under certain experimental conditions, but perhaps only by noticing that a verb is missing an expected dependent.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Laurel Perkins (*19)
Dates:

15-month-olds behave as if they comprehend filler-gap dependencies such as wh-questions and relative clauses. On one hypothesis, this success does not reflect adult-like representations but rather a “gap-driven” interpretation heuristic based on verb knowledge. Infants who know that feed is transitive may notice that a predicted direct object is missing in Which monkey did the frog feed __? and then search the display for the animal that got fed. This gap-driven account predicts that 15-month-olds will perform accurately only if they know enough verbs to deploy this interpretation heuristic; therefore, performance should depend on vocabulary. We test this prediction in a preferential looking task and find corroborating evidence: Only 15-month-olds with higher vocabulary behave as if they comprehend wh-questions and relative clauses. This result reproduces the previous finding that 15-month-olds can identify the right answer for wh-questions and relative clauses under certain experimental contexts, and is moreover consistent with the gap-driven heuristic account for this behavior.

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The agreement theta generalization

How does agreement between a head and a dependent relate to argument selection? Omer Preminger and Maria Polinsky observe a new restriction.

Linguistics

Dates:
In this paper, we propose a new generalization concerning the structural relationship between a head that agrees with a DP in φ-features and the predicate that assigns the (first) thematic role to that DP: the Agreement Theta Generalization (ATG). According to the ATG, configurations where the thematic-role assigner is located in a higher clause than the agreeing head are categorically excluded. We present empirical evidence for the ATG, discuss its analytical import, and show that this generalization bears directly on the proper modeling of syntactic agreement, as well as the prospects for reducing other syntactic (and syntacto-semantic) dependencies to the same underlying mechanism.

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First conjunct agreement in Polish: Evidence for a mono-clausal analysis

In Polish a verb sometimes agrees with only the first member of a conjunct subject. Gesoel Mendes and visiting student Marta Ruda use verb-echo answers to show that this is not the result a biclausal structure with ellipsis.

Linguistics

Author/Lead: Gesoel Mendes
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Gesoel Mendes, Marta Ruda
Dates:
In Polish a verb sometimes agrees with only the first member of a conjunct subject. Gesoel Mendes and visiting student Marta Ruda use verb-echo answers to show that this is not the result a biclausal structure with ellipsis.

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Understanding heritage languages

Maria Polinsky joins UC Irvine’s Gregory Scontras to “synthesize pertinent empirical observations and theoretical claims about vulnerable and robust areas of heritage language competence into early steps toward a model of heritage-language grammar.”

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Gregory Scontras
Dates:
With a growing interest in heritage languages from researchers of bilingualism and linguistic theory, the field of heritage-language studies has begun to build on its empirical foundations, moving toward a deeper understanding of the nature of language competence under unbalanced bilingualism. In furtherance of this trend, the current work synthesizes pertinent empirical observations and theoretical claims about vulnerable and robust areas of heritage language competence into early steps toward a model of heritage-language grammar. We highlight two key triggers for deviation from the relevant baseline: the quantity and quality of the input from which the heritage grammar is acquired, and the economy of online resources when operating in a less dominant language. In response to these triggers, we identify three outcomes of deviation in the heritage grammar: an avoidance of ambiguity, a resistance to irregularity, and a shrinking of structure. While we are still a ways away from a level of understanding that allows us to predict those aspects of heritage grammar that will be robust and those that will deviate from the relevant baselines, our hope is that the current work will spur the continued development of a predictive model of heritage language competence.

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Field stations for linguistic research: A blueprint of a sustainable model

Professor Polinsky describes the advantages of field stations for linguistic fieldwork, and the implementation of the UMD station in Guatemala.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Dates:
There are often practical barriers to doing fieldwork in a novel, remote location. I propose a model for linguistic research designed to overcome such barriers: a linguistic field station. It is a centralized facility that coordinates scientific research by providing (i) research infrastructure, (ii) access to specific social, biological, or ecological systems that are not immediately available otherwise, (iii) training for students at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and (iv) access to local communities with the goal of obtaining data from them as well as training local specialists. Field stations are particularly important for research on and documentation of Indigenous languages, including contexts where colonial languages are supplanting Indigenous ones. Although the field station model is not new in research outside of language sciences, it has not yet been utilized widely in language research. I describe how the proposed model has been implemented in Guatemala and compare the field station there with other linguistic field stations.

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Error-Driven Retrieval in Agreement Attraction Rarely Leads to Misinterpretation

"The bed by the lamps were undoubtedly quite bright." Does making this mistake in agreement, "were" instead of "was," make you less likely to notice the oddity of describing a bed as bright? This study shows that normally the answer is No.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Zoe Schlueter, Dan Parker
Dates:
Previous work on agreement computation in sentence comprehension motivates a model in which the parser predicts the verb’s number and engages in retrieval of the agreement controller only when it detects a mismatch between the prediction and the bottom-up input. It is the error-driven second stage of this process that is prone to similarity-based interference and can result in the illusory licensing of a subject–verb number agreement violation in the presence of a structurally irrelevant noun matching the number marking on the verb (‘The bed by the lamps were…’), giving rise to an effect known as ‘agreement attraction’. Here we ask to what extent the error-driven retrieval process underlying the illusory licensing alters the structural and thematic representation of the sentence. We use a novel dual-task paradigm that combines self-paced reading with a speeded forced choice task to investigate whether agreement attraction leads comprehenders to erroneously interpret the attractor as the thematic subject, which would indicate structural reanalysis. Participants read sentence fragments (‘The bed by the lamp/lamps was/were undoubtedly quite’) and completed the sentences by choosing between two adjectives (‘comfortable’/’bright’) which were either compatible with the subject’s head noun or with the attractor. We found the expected agreement attraction profile in the self-paced reading data but the interpretive error occurs on only a small subset of attraction trials, suggesting that in agreement attraction agreement checking rarely matches the thematic relation. We propose that illusory licensing of an agreement violation often reflects a low-level rechecking process that is only concerned with number and does not have an impact on the structural representation of the sentence. Interestingly, this suggests that error-driven repair processes can result in a globally inconsistent final sentence representation with a persistent mismatch between the subject and the verb.

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Rebels without a clause: Processing reflexives in fronted wh-predicates

In two eye-tracking experiments, Akira Omaki and Brian Dillon find that readers initially interpret a cataphoric reflexive anaphorically, and tend to associate the reflexive with a recently preceding antecedent.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Akira Omaki, Anthony Yacovone, Zoe Ovans, Brian Dillon
Dates:
English reflexives like herself tend to associate with a structurally prominent local antecedent in online processing. However, past work has primarily investigated reflexives in canonical direct object positions. The present study investigates cataphoric reflexives in fronted wh-predicates (e.g., The mechanic that James hired predicted how annoyed with himself the insurance agent would be). Here, the reflexive is encountered in advance of its grammatical antecedent. We ask two questions. First, will readers engage an anaphoric (backwards-looking) or cataphoric (forwards-looking) search for an antecedent? Two, how similar is this process to the retrieval process for direct object reflexives? In two eye-tracking experiments, we found that readers initially interpret a cataphoric reflexive anaphorically, and tend to associate the reflexive with the more recently encountered antecedent. We propose that structural guidance for reflexive resolution occurs only when the necessary configurational syntactic information is available when the reflexive is encountered.

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Distinctions between primary and secondary scalar implicatures

New evidence that only some scalar inferences have a Gricean explanation, while others are conventional.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Anouk Dieuleveut
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Anouk Dieuleveut, Benjamin Spector, Emmanuel Chemla
Dates:
An utterance of Some of the students are home usually triggers the inference that it is not the case that the speaker believes that all students are home (Primary Scalar Implicature). It may also license a stronger inference: that the speaker believes that not all students are home (Secondary Scalar Implicature). Using an experimental paradigm which allows to distinguish between these three distinct readings as such (literal reading, primary SI, secondary SI), we show that the secondary SI can be accessed even in contexts where the speaker is not presented as being well-informed, a result which goes against classical neo-Gricean pragmatic approaches to Scalar Implicature, but is compatible with both the ‘grammatical’ approach to Scalar Implicatures and some more recent game-theoretic pragmatic models in which speakers and listeners engage in sophisticated higher-order reasoning about each other. Second, we use this paradigm to compare standard scalar items such as some and expressions whose interpretation has been argued to involve SIs, but controversially: almost, numerals and plural morphology. For some and almost, we find that speakers do access three distinct readings, but for numerals and plural morphology, only the literal reading and the secondary implicature could be detected, and no primary implicature, which suggests that the pragmatic and semantic mechanisms at play are different for both types of items.

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Learning, memory and syntactic bootstrapping: A meditation

Do children learning words rely on memories for where they have heard the word before? Jeff Lidz argues memory of syntactic context plays a larger role than memory for referential context.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Dates:
Lila Gleitman’s body of work on word learning raises an apparent paradox. Whereas work on syntactic bootstrapping depends on learners retaining information about the set of distributional contexts that a word occurs in, work on identifying a word’s referent suggests that learners do not retain information about the set of extralinguistic contexts that a word occurs in. I argue that this asymmetry derives from the architecture of the language faculty. Learners expect words with similar meanings to have similar distributions, and so learning depends on a memory for syntactic environments. The referential context in which a word is used is less constrained and hence contributes less to the memories that drive word learning.

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