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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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Dutch 'must' more structure

In Dutch you can say "Liv must a bike" to mean she needs to have bike, but not to mean she probably has one. But why, when the same is not true for "Liv must have a bike"?

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Annemarie van Dooren
Dates:
In Dutch you can say "Liv must a bike" to mean she needs to have bike, but not to mean she probably has one. But why, when the same is not true for "Liv must have a bike"?

Two kinds of syntactic ergativity in Mayan

Mayan languages often distinguish transitive from intransitive subjects syntactically. But they do so in two different ways, argues Rodrigo Ranero.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Rodrigo Ranero
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Jamie Douglas, Michelle Sheehan
Dates:
In this paper we argue that there are two different kinds of syntactic ergativity attested across Mayan languages. In languages that are (predominantly) VOS, the ban on A-bar extraction of the transitive subject arises because of a blocking effect of the kind proposed by Aldridge (2008), Coon et al. (2014). This explains the O>S word order but also the fact that straightforward extraction of all vP-internal material is banned. In the case of predominantly VSO languages, however, we propose that syntactic ergativity affects only the transitive subject: extraction of vP-internal adjuncts is unrestricted. This is because in S>O languages, the extraction restriction results from anti-locality, of the kind proposed by Erlewine (2016). We argue, moreover, that both kinds of syntactic ergativity in these languages ultimately arise due to defective intervention of the ergative subject in the Agree relation between INFL and the internal argument. There are essentially two ways to circumvent this problem: either S 'sidesteps' to spec INFL, or O leapfrogs to the outer spec vP.

Exhaustivity and at-issueness: Evidence from L1 Acquisition of Mandarin

"Only Art wept" foregrounds the claim that Art was alone in weeping, while "It was Art who wept" backgrounds the presumption of a single weeper. How do kids acquiring a language come to understand such distinctions?

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Yu'an Yang
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Ying Liu
Dates:
"Only Art wept" foregrounds the claim that Art was alone in weeping, while "It was Art who wept" backgrounds the presumption of a single weeper. How do kids acquiring a language come to understand such distinctions?

Why control of PRO in rationale clauses is not a relation between arguments

"The ship was sunk to collect the insurance." The sinker may be the intended collector of insurance. But not, argue Jeff and Alexander against the common view, because of a grammatical relation between arguments in the two clauses.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Alexander Williams
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Jeffrey Green
Dates:
"The ship was sunk to collect the insurance." The sinker may be the intended collector of insurance. But not, argue Jeff and Alexander against the common view, because of a grammatical relation between arguments in the two clauses.

Distinguishing object agreement and clitic doubling in Noun Incorporation constructions

Some languages with Noun Incorporation also have morphology that indexes the noun. Which ones? Only those where such morphology expresses agreement, and not clitic doubling, says postdoc Ted Levin.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Theodore Levin
Dates:
Some languages with Noun Incorporation also have morphology that indexes the noun. Which ones? Only those where such morphology expresses agreement, and not clitic doubling, says postdoc Ted Levin.

Exploring the abstractness of number retrieval cues in the computation of subject-verb agreement in comprehension

"The key to the cabinets are in the drawer." This sort of error in agreement has been explained in terms of cue-based memory retrieval. Zoe Schlueter asks whether the relevant cue is plural "s" or something more abstract and faithful to the grammar.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Zoe Schlueter
Dates:
Subject-verb agreement has provided critical insights into the cue-based memory retrieval system that supports language comprehension by showing that memory interference can cause erroneous agreement with non subjects: ‘agreement attraction’. Here we ask how faithful retrieval cues are in relation to the grammar. We examine the impact of conjoined singular attractors (The advice from the doctor and the nurse…), which are syntactically plural but whose plurality is introduced by a vehicle, the conjunction ‘and’, that is not an unequivocal correlate of syntactic plurality. We find strong agreement attraction, which suggests that retrieval processes do not only target unequivocal morphological correlates of syntactic plurality. However, we also find some attraction with conjoined adjective attractors (The advice from the diligent and compassionate doctor…), which is compatible with a system in which an imperfect correlate of syntactic plurality, like the word ‘and’, can become associated with the plural retrieval cue due to frequent co-occurrence with the actual target feature.

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The time course of contextual cohort effects in auditory processing of category-ambiguous words: MEG evidence for a single “clash” as noun or verb

Phoebe Gaston uses MEG to break down how syntactic context can restrict auditory processing of word-forms that are ambiguous between a noun and a verb.

Linguistics

Author/Lead: Phoebe Gaston
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Alec Marantz
Dates:
The size and probability distribution of a word-form’s cohort of lexical competitors influence auditory processing and can be constrained by syntactic category information. This experiment employs noun/verb homonyms (e.g. “ache”) presented in syntactic context to clarify the mechanisms and representations involved in context-based cohort restriction. Implications for theories positing single versus multiple word-forms in cases of category ambiguity also arise. Using correlations between neural activity in auditory cortex, measured by magnetoencephalography (MEG), and standard and context-dependent cohort entropy and phoneme surprisal variables, we consider the possibility of cohort restriction on the basis of form or on the basis of category usage. Crucially, the form-conditional measure is consistent only with a single word-form view of category ambiguity. Our results show that noun/verb homonyms are derived from single category-neutral word-forms and that the cohort is restricted incrementally in context, by form and then by usage.

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Linguistic structure across time: ERP responses to coordinated and uncoordinated noun phrases

Lau & Liao find neural indices of the difference between perceiving a mere sequence of two noun phrases versus perceiving their conjunction with "and".

Linguistics

Dates:
Relatively little is known about how linguistic structure is neurally encoded. The current study examines a relatively subtle manipulation of syntactic and semantic structure: the difference between reading a list of two noun phrases (“sunlit ponds ### green umbrellas”) and their syntactic coordination (“sunlit ponds and green umbrellas”). In two ERP experiments, the presence of the coordinator resulted in an increased anterior negativity across the entire second noun phrase, even though coordination had no direct relevance for the memory recognition task. These findings demonstrate that structural connectedness exerts strong, ongoing differences in neural activity even when structured and unstructured materials are very tightly matched in sequence and content. These differences may reflect ongoing maintenance of structure in memory, or computation of the more complex semantic or discourse representation associated with syntactic coordination.

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Similarity-based interference and the acquisition of adjunct control

Kids sometimes make errors in interpreting the understood subject of adjunct predicate, like "before leaving." Julie Gerard argues that these errors may result, not from a non-adultlike grammar, but from mistakes in sentence processing.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Juliana Gerard
Dates:
Previous research on the acquisition of adjunct control has observed non-adultlike behavior for sentences like “John bumped Mary after tripping on the sidewalk.” While adults only allow a subject control interpretation for these sentences (that John tripped on the sidewalk), preschool-aged children have been reported to allow a much wider range of interpretations. A number of different tasks have been used with the aim of identifying a grammatical source of children’s errors. In this paper, we consider the role of extragrammatical factors. In two comprehension experiments, we demonstrate that error rates go up when the similarity increases between an antecedent and a linearly intervening noun phrase, first with similarity in gender, and next with similarity in number marking. This suggests that difficulties with adjunct control are to be explained (at least in part) by the sentence processing mechanisms that underlie similarity-based interference in adults

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The Interpretation of Plural Morphology and (Non-)Obligatory Number Marking: An Argument from Artificial Language Learning

An artificial language study on the meaning of plural morphology, and how this might be learned.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Adam Liter
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Christopher Heffner, Cristina Schmitt
Dates:
Publisher: Journal Language Learning and Development 13(4)

We present an artificial language experiment investigating (i) how speakers of languages such as English with two-way obligatory distinctions between singular and plural learn a system where singular and plural are only optionally marked, and (ii) how learners extend their knowledge of the plural morpheme when under the scope of negation without explicit training. Production and comprehension results suggest that speakers of English did learn a system with only optional marking of number. Additionally, subjects did not accept an inclusive (“one or more than one”) interpretation of the plural when under the scope of negation, as in their native language, but rather assigned it an exclusive (“more than one”) interpretation. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that the meaning assigned to plural morphology is sensitive to the architecture of the system. In a binary number system with obligatory number marking, plural morphology can sometimes receive an inclusive interpretation. However, in a system where plural marking is never obligatory, plural morphology has an exclusive interpretation. Learning the morphology of a language is more than just learning morphological forms and their distributions. It also entails learning how these forms partition the semantic space and how they are organized with respect to each other in different contexts. An interesting instance of morphological learning is the acquisition of number. Number systems differ cross-linguistically along a series of dimensions, beyond the simple surface distinctions in the numbers and types of morphological forms in play within a language (cf. Corbett, 2001). In some languages, number information is an obligatory feature of a noun phrase; in other languages, number is only optionally present; and in yet others, number information is obligatory in some types of noun phrases but not others. The interpretation of different morphemes also varies cross-linguistically. In some languages, plural morphology can be interpreted as meaning “one or more than one” (e.g., English); but, in other languages, the interpretation is always “more than one” (e.g., Korean). But how do these different interpretations arise? One possibility is that the interpretations of the different number morphemes within a linguistic system are simply the result of arbitrary pairings between meanings and forms. An alternative possibility is that their interpretations are a necessary consequence of the interaction between the learning system and properties of the input, such as the number of distinctions between number morphemes and the obligatoriness (or lack thereof) of number morphology. Unfortunately, it is difficult to distinguish between these two possibilities in a natural setting, since languages are never minimal pairs of one another. This makes it impossible to make proper comparisons without results becoming muddled by other differences that must also be learned and may interfere with number. In this article, our goal is to contribute to the debate of how learners decide the underlying meaning of particular pieces of number morphology. To that effect, we constructed an artificial language to examine how speakers of English, which obligatorily encodes number in the noun phrase, learn a language where number is only optionally marked on the noun phrase. We ask two questions. First, can speakers of a language that makes an obligatory distinction between singular and plural learn a system in which number is only optionally encoded without regularizing the system to something more like their native language? Second, if they can learn such a system, does the morphological partition of the new language shift how the plural morphology of the system is interpreted? Specifically, since English is a language in which the plural can sometimes be interpreted as meaning “one or more than one” (more on this below), will learners retain the possibility of this interpretation or not? We find that English speakers do learn a system with optional number marking and are able to treat number-neutral noun phrases as compatible with both plural and singular interpretations. Furthermore, the results are consistent with the hypothesis that learners do not treat the plural marker in this language as meaning “one or more than one”, as they do in some contexts in English, but rather interpret it as meaning “more than one”. Taken together, these results suggest that the differences in interpretation of the plural morphemes cross-linguistically may depend on properties of the available alternative in the input and/or the learning system and are therefore not just an arbitrary pairing of form and meaning. This article proceeds as follows. First, we describe some properties of English-like number systems and other types of number systems that served as models for the artificial language created. Next, we discuss different hypotheses and their predictions for our experiment. The next section presents the study and results, and the last section concludes with a general discussion.

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