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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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How to neutralize a finite clause boundary: Phase theory and the grammar of bound pronouns

Postdoctoral alum Tom Grano joins Howard Lasnik to explain why bound pronouns are only weak interveners for a variety of long-distance dependencies

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Howard Lasnik
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Thomas Grano
Dates:
A bound pronoun in the subject position of a finite embedded clause renders the clause boundary relatively transparent to relations ordinarily confined to monoclausal, control, and raising configurations. For example, too/enough-movement structures involving a finite clause boundary are degraded in sentences like *This book is too long [for John to claim [ that Bill read _ in a day ]] but improved when the finite clause has a bound pronominal subject as in ?This book is too long [ for John1 to claim [that he1 read _ in a day ]]. This bound pronoun effect holds across a wide range of phenomena including too/enough-movement, tough-movement, gapping, comparative deletion, antecedent-contained deletion, quantifier scope interaction, multiple questions, pseudogapping, reciprocal binding, and multiple sluicing; we confirm the effect via a sentence acceptability experiment targeting some of these phenomena. Our account has two crucial ingredients: (a) bound pronouns optionally enter the derivation with unvalued ϕ-features and (b) phases are defined in part by convergence, so that under certain conditions, unvalued features void the phasal status of CP and extend the locality domain for syntactic operations.

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Adjunct control: Syntax and processing

"Holly went to her room after drinking milk in order get some sleep." How is "Holly" related to "drinking milk" and "get some sleep," syntactically and in online comprehension?

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Jeffrey Jack Green
Dates:
This dissertation analyzes the syntax and processing of adjunct control. Adjunct control is the referential relation between the implicit (PRO) subject of a non-finite adjunct clause and its understood antecedent, as in the temporal adjunct in ‘Holly1 went to bed [after PRO1 drinking milk]’, or the rationale clause in ‘August1 sat on the couch [in order PRO1 to read library books]’. Adjunct control is often assumed to involve a syntactic ‘Obligatory Control’ (OC) dependency, but I show that some adjuncts also permit what is referred to as ‘Non-Obligatory Control’ (NOC), as in the sentences ‘The food tasted better [after PRO drinking milk]’ and ‘The book was checked out from the library [in order PRO to read it]’, where PRO refers to some unnamed entity. I argue that for some adjuncts, OC and NOC are not in complementary distribution, contrary to assumptions of much prior literature, but in agreement with Landau (2017). Contrary to implicit assumptions of Landau, however, I also show that this OC/NOC duality does not extend to all adjuncts. I outline assumptions that Landau’s theory would have to make in order to accommodate the wider distribution of OC and NOC in adjuncts, but argue that this isbetter accomplished within the Movement Theory of Control (Hornstein, 1999) by relaxing the assumption that all adjuncts are phases. Even in adjuncts where both OC and NOC are possible, OC is often strongly preferred. I argue that this is in large part due to interpretive biases in processing. As a foundational step in examining what these processing biases are, the second part of this dissertation uses visual-world eyetracking to compare the timecourse of interpretation of subject-controlled PRO and overt pronouns in temporal adjuncts. The results suggest that PRO can be interpreted just as quickly as overt pronouns once the relevant bottom-up input is received. These experiments also provide evidence that structural predictions can facilitate reference resolution independent of next-mention predictions.

Developing incrementality in filler-gap dependency processing

Adults actively try to relate question words to a verb, resulting in momentary misunderstandings of temporarily ambiguous questions like "What was Emily eating the cake with?". When does this behavior first emerge? Around age 6.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Emily Atkinson, Matthew Wagers, Akira Omaki
Dates:
Much work has demonstrated that children are able to use bottom-up linguistic cues to incrementally interpret sentences, but there is little understanding of the extent to which children’s comprehension mechanisms are guided by top-down linguistic information that can be learned from distributional regularities in the input. Using a visual world eye tracking experiment and a corpus analysis, the current study investigates whether 5- and 6-year-old children incrementally assign interpretations to temporarily ambiguous wh-questions like What was Emily eating the cake with __?. In the visual world eye-tracking experiment, adults demonstrated evidence for active dependency formation at the earliest region (i.e., the verb region), while 6-year-old children demonstrated a spill-over effect of this bias in the subsequent NP region. No evidence for this bias was found in 5-year-olds, although the speed of arrival at the ultimately correct instrument interpretation appears to be modulated by the vocabulary size. These results suggest that adult-like active formation of filler-gap dependencies begins to emerge around age 6. The corpus analysis of filler-gap dependency structures in adult corpora and child corpora demonstrate that the distributional regularities in either corpora are equally in favor of early, incremental completion of filler-gap dependencies, suggesting that the distributional information in the input is either not relevant to this incremental bias, or that 5-year-old children are somehow unable to recruit this information in real-time comprehension. Taken together, these findings shed light on the origin of the incremental processing bias in filler-gap dependency processing, as well as on the role of language experience and cognitive constraints in the development of incremental sentence processing mechanisms.

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Children's attitude problems: Bootstrapping verb meaning from syntax and pragmatics

How do children learn the meanings of verbs like "think" and "know"? In part by understanding how their meaning relates both to their syntactic distribution, and to the kinds of speech acts they are routinely used to perform.

Linguistics

Dates:
How do children learn the meanings of propositional attitude verbs? We argue that children use information contained in both syntactic distribution and pragmatic function to zero in on the appropriate meanings. Specifically, we identify a potentially universal link between semantic subclasses of attitude verbs, their syntactic distribution and the kinds of indirect speech acts they can be used to perform. As a result, children can use the syntax as evidence about the meaning, which in turn constrains the kinds of pragmatic enrichments they do and do not make in understanding these verbs in conversation.

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Individuals and non-individuals in cognition and semantics: The mass/count distinction and quantity representation

To see cattle as "cows" is to seem them as numbered, but to see them as "beef" is not.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Darko Odic, Tim Hunter, Justin Halberda
Dates:
Language is a sub-component of human cognition. One important, though often unattained goal for both cognitive scientists and linguists is to explicate how the meanings of words and sentences relate to the more general, non-linguistic, cognitive systems that are used to evaluate whether sentences are true or false. In the present paper, we explore one such relationship: an interface between the linguistic structures referring to individuals and non-individuals (specifically, count-nouns like ‘cows’ and mass-nouns like ‘beef’) and the non-linguistic cognitive systems that quantify and compare number and area. While humans may be flexible in how they use language across contexts, in two experiments using standard psychophysical testing we find that participants evaluate a count-noun sentence via numerical representations and evaluate a corresponding mass-noun sentence via non-numerical representations; consistent with a principled interface between language and cognition for evaluating these terms. This was the case even when the visual display was held constant across conditions and only the noun type was varied, further suggesting an important difference in how area and number, as well as count and mass nouns, are represented. These findings speak to issues concerning the semantics-cognition interface, the mass-count distinction, and the psychophysics of quantity representation.

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Learning attitude verb meanings in a morphologically-poor language

Can children distinguish main from subordinate clauses in a language without much morphology?

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Nick Huang
Dates:
Word meanings are learned under less-than-ideal conditions: in principle, a word can have many possible meanings, and learners must choose the correct one with limited explicit instruction. This problem seems to be exacerbated in the context of attitude verbs, like think, believe, want, which describe abstract mental states. These verbs lack reliable physical correlates in the real world, so the non-linguistic context provides very limited information to the learner about their meanings. An influential proposal addressing this learning problem posits that learners rely on linguistic context to learn their meanings, via syntactic bootstrapping. In this paper, we investigate the feasibility of syntactic bootstrapping in a morphosyntactically poor language. We are interested in the fact that cross-linguistically, children seem to master at a relatively early age the semantic differences between “belief verbs” like think, believe, which express judgments of truth, and “desire verbs” like want, love, that express preferences. In particular, we explore the Declarative Main Clause Syntax Hypothesis, a syntactic bootstrapping account for attitude verb meanings, taking Mandarin Chinese as a case study. In principle, Mandarin offers relatively few cues for syntactic bootstrapping purposes, as it has minimal verbal and nominal morphology and allows null arguments. If the Declarative Main Clause Syntax Hypothesis is a viable learning strategy in Mandarin, then it is likely to be just as viable in languages that are similarly morphosyntactically impoverished, and even more viable in languages with richer morphosyntax.

Advanced second language learners' perception of lexical tone contrasts

Mandarin tones are difficult for advanced L2 learners. But the difficulty comes primarily from the need to process tones lexically, and not from an inability to perceive tones phonetically.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Eric Pelzl, Taomei Guo, Robert DeKeyser
Dates:
It is commonly believed that second language (L2) acquisition of lexical tones presents a major challenge for learners from nontonal language backgrounds. This belief is somewhat at odds with research that consistently shows beginning learners making quick gains through focused tone training, as well as research showing advanced learners achieving near-native performance in tone identification tasks. However, other long-term difficulties related to L2 tone perception may persist, given the additional demands of word recognition and the effects of context. In the current study, we used behavioral and event-related potential (ERP) experiments to test whether perception of Mandarin tones is difficult for advanced L2 learners in isolated syllables, disyllabic words in isolation, and disyllabic words in sentences. Stimuli were more naturalistic and challenging than in previous research. While L2 learners excelled at tone identification in isolated syllables, they performed with very low accuracy in rejecting disyllabic tonal nonwords in isolation and in sentences. We also report ERP data from critical mismatching words in sentences; while L2 listeners showed no significant differences in responses in any condition, trends were not inconsistent with the overall pattern in behavioral results of less sensitivity to tone mismatches than to semantic or segmental mismatches. We interpret these results as evidence that Mandarin tones are in fact difficult for advanced L2 learners. However, the difficulty is not due primarily to an inability to perceive tones phonetically, but instead is driven by the need to process tones lexically, especially in multisyllable words.

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Syntactic Structures after 60 Years: The Impact of the Chomskyan Revolution in Linguistics

A collection reflecting on Chomsky's 1957 classic, with several essays by Maryland faculty and alumni.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Pritty Patel-Grosz, Charles Yang
Dates:
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
A collection reflecting on Chomsky's 1957 classic, with several essays by Maryland faculty and alumni.

The explanatory power of linguistic theory

Jeff Lidz details evidence for the Predicate Internal Subject Hypothesis, and shows how its abstractness supports the "considerable sophistication" that the Chomskyan tradition imputes to the child learner.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Dates:
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Jeff Lidz details evidence for the Predicate Internal Subject Hypothesis, and shows how its abstractness supports the "considerable sophistication" that the Chomskyan tradition imputes to the child learner.

Back to the Future: Non-generation, filtration, and the heartbreak of interface-driven minimalism

Syntax is not a system that freely generates structures and then selectively filters them, contrary to common versions of the Minimalist Program.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Omer Preminger
Dates:
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
This paper argues that the filtration-based approach to syntactic competence adopted in the context of minimalist syntax (Chomsky 1995, 2000, 2001), where freely-assembled syntactic outputs are filtered at the interfaces with the sensorimotor (SM) and conceptual-intentional (C-I) systems, is empirically wrong. The solution, I argue, is a return to a non-generation alternative, of the kind put forth in Syntactic Structures (Chomsky 1957).