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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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Experimental approaches to ergative languages

A summary of major results in experimental work on ergative syntax, focussing on competition with accusative syntax, and the effects of ergativity on processing of long distance dependencies.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Nicholas Longenbaugh
Dates:
Publisher: Oxford University Press
A summary of major results in experimental work on ergative syntax, focussing on competition with accusative syntax, and the effects of ergativity on processing of long distance dependencies.

The EPP is independent of Case: On illicit unaccusative incorporation

Languages with Noun Incorporation may forbid this with the single argument of an unaccusative. For this reason, says Ted Levin, the work of the EPP cannot be done instead by a requirement for Case.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Theodore Levin
Dates:
Publisher: MITWPL
Languages with Noun Incorporation may forbid this with the single argument of an unaccusative. For this reason, says Ted Levin, the work of the EPP cannot be done instead by a requirement for Case.

How can feature-sharing be asymmetric? Valuation as UNION over geometric feature structures

Valuation of features is neither overwriting nor sharing, but instead "union" of geometric structures.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Omer Preminger
Dates:
Publisher: MITWPL
Valuation of features is neither overwriting nor sharing, but instead "union" of geometric structures.

Cross-linguistic scope ambiguity: When two systems meet

Scope ambiguities permitted by most speakers of English are not permitted by those who are also heritage speakers of Mandarin, suggest Maria Polinsky and her collaborators.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Maria Polinsky
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Gregory Scontras, C.-Y. Edwin Tsai, Kenneth Mai
Dates:
Accurately recognizing and resolving ambiguity is a hallmark of linguistic ability. English is a language with scope ambiguities in doubly-quantified sentences like A shark ate every pirate; this sentence can either describe a scenario with a single shark eating all of the pirates, or a scenario with many sharks—a potentially-different one eating each pirate. In Mandarin Chinese, the corresponding sentence is unambiguous, as it can only describe the single-shark scenario. We present experimental evidence to this effect, comparing native speakers of English with native speakers of Mandarin in their interpretations of doubly-quantified sentences. Having demonstrated the difference between these two languages in their ability for inverse scope interpretations, we then probe the robustness of the grammar of scope by extending our experiments to English-dominant adult heritage speakers of Mandarin. Like native speakers of Mandarin, heritage Mandarin speakers lack inverse scope in Mandarin. Crucially, these speakers also lack inverse scope in English, their dominant language in adulthood. We interpret these results as evidence for the pressure to simplify the grammar of scope, decreasing ambiguity when possible. In other words, when two systems meet—as in the case of heritage speakers—the simpler system prevails.

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Learning an input filter for argument structure acquisition

How do children learn a verb’s argument structure when their input contains nonbasic clauses that obscure verb transitivity? Laurel Perkins shows that it might be enough for them to make a good guess about how likely they are to be wrong.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Laurel Perkins
Dates:
How do children learn a verb’s argument structure when their input contains nonbasic clauses that obscure verb transitivity? Here we present a new model that infers verb transitivity by learning to filter out non-basic clauses that were likely parsed in error. In simulations with childdirected speech, we show that this model accurately categorizes the majority of 50 frequent transitive, intransitive and alternating verbs, and jointly learns appropriate parameters for filtering parsing errors. Our model is thus able to filter out problematic data for verb learning without knowing in advance which data need to be filtered.

Think' pragmatically: Children's interpretation of belief reports

Children under 4 respond in nonadultlike ways to uses of verbs like "think". Shevaun, Valentine and Jeff argue that this arise from pragmatic difficulty understanding the relevance of belief, rather than from conceptual or semantic immaturity.

Linguistics

Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Shevaun Lewis
Dates:
Children under 4 years of age often evaluate belief reports based on reality instead of beliefs. They tend to reject sentences like, “John thinks that giraffes have stripes” on the grounds that giraffes do not have stripes. Previous accounts have proposed that such judgments reflect immature Theory of Mind or immature syntactic/semantic representations. We argue that the difficulty is actually pragmatic. Adults frequently use belief reports to provide information about reality (e.g., “I think the stove is still hot”). Young children have difficulty determining when the main point is reality (the stove situation) vs. mental states (John’s ideas about giraffes). We show that if the context emphasizes beliefs, children are more able to evaluate belief reports appropriately (Experiment 1). The pattern of children’s truth value judgments demonstrates that they understand the literal meaning of think sentences, despite their pragmatic difficulty grasping the speaker’s intention (Experiment 2).

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Language Acquisition

A handbook chapter on first language acquisition, aimed at the independent contributions of experience, domain-specific biases, priorknowledge and extralinguistic cognition in shaping how a grammar grows inside the mind of a child.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Laurel Perkins
Dates:
Publisher: WIley
A handbook chapter on first language acquisition, aimed at the independent contributions of experience, domain-specific biases, prior knowledge and extralinguistic cognition in shaping how a grammar grows inside the mind of a child.

Verb learning in 14- and 18-month-old English-learning infants

Ordinarily, verbs in English label events while nouns do not. Angela He and Jeff Lidz show that even 18-month-olds can use this correlation to infer the meanings of novel words, given the understanding that "is _ ing" is a context for verbs.

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Jeffrey Lidz
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): Angela He
Dates:
The present study investigates English-learning infants’ early understanding of the link between the grammatical category verb and the conceptual category event, and their ability to recruit morphosyntactic information online to learn novel verb meanings. We report two experiments using an infant-controlled Habituation-Switch Paradigm. In Experiment 1, we habituated 14- and 18-month-old infants with two scenes each labeled by a novel intransitive verb embedded in the frame “is ___ing”: a penguin-spinning scene paired with “it’s doking”, a penguin-cartwheeling scene paired with “it’s pratching”. At test, infants in both age groups dishabituated when the scene-sentence pairings got switched (e.g., penguin-spinning—“it’s pratching”). This finding is consistent with two explanations: (1) infants were able to link verbs to event concepts (as opposed to other concepts, e.g., objects) and (2) infants were simply tracking the surface-level mapping between scenes and sentences, and it was scene-sentence mismatch that elicited dishabituation, not their knowledge of verb-event link. In Experiment 2, we investigated these two possibilities, and found that 14-month-olds were sensitive to any type of mismatch, whereas 18-month-olds dishabituated only to a mismatch that involved a change in word meaning. Together, these results provide evidence that 18-month-old English-learning infants are able to learn novel verbs by recruiting morphosyntactic cues for verb categorization and use the verb-event link to constrain their search space of possible verb meanings.

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The argument from the poverty of the stimulus

Chomsky argued that our experience with language far underdetermines the knowledge we come to have of it, implicating an auxiliary role for language-specific structure in our biological endowment. Howard and Jeff review the issue.

Linguistics

Dates:
Publisher: Oxford University Press
This article explores what Noam Chomsky called ‘the argument from poverty of the stimulus’: the argument that our experience far underdetermines our knowledge and hence that our biological endowment is responsible for much of the derived state. It first frames the poverty of the stimulus argument either in terms of the set of sentences allowed by the grammar (its weak generative capacity) or the set of structures generated by the grammar (its strong generative capacity). It then considers the five steps to a poverty argument and goes on to discuss the possibility that children can learn via indirect negative evidence on the basis of Bayesian learning algorithms. It also examines structure dependence, polar interrogatives, and artificial phrase structure and concludes by explaining how Universal Grammar shapes the representation of all languages and enables learners to acquire the complex system of knowledge that undergirds the ability to produce and understand novel sentences.

The role of the IFG and pSTS in syntactic prediction: evidence from a parametric study of hierarchical structure in fMRI

Postdoc William Matchin, with Ellen Lau and Baggett Fellow Chris Hammerly, find a role for the anterior temporal lobe in semantic combination, and a role specifically in comprehension of thematic relations for the Angular Gyrus/Temporalparietal junction

Linguistics

Contributor(s): Ellen Lau
Non-ARHU Contributor(s): William Matchin, Chris Hammerly
Dates:
Sentences encode hierarchical structural relations among words. Several neuroimaging experiments aiming to localize combinatory operations responsible for creating this structure during sentence comprehension have contrasted short, simple phrases and sentences to unstructured controls. Some of these experiments have revealed activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), associating these regions with basic syntactic combination. However, the wide variability of these effects across studies raises questions about this interpretation. In an fMRI experiment, we provide support for an alternative hypothesis: these regions underlie top-down syntactic predictions that facilitate sentence processing but are not necessary for building syntactic structure. We presented stimuli with three levels of structure: unstructured lists, two-word phrases, and simple, short sentences; and two levels of content: natural stimuli with real words and stimuli with open-class items replaced with pseudowords (jabberwocky). While both the phrase and sentence conditions engaged syntactic combination, our experiment only encouraged syntactic prediction in the sentence condition. We found increased activity for both natural and jabberwocky sentences in the left IFG (pars triangularis and pars orbitalis) and pSTS relative to unstructured word lists and two-word phrases, but we did not find any such effects for two-word phrases relative to unstructured word lists in these areas. Our results are most consistent with the hypothesis that increased activity in IFG and pSTS for basic contrasts of structure reflects syntactic prediction. The pars opercularis of the IFG showed a response profile consistent with verbal working memory. We found incremental effects of structure in the anterior temporal lobe (ATL), and increased activation only for sentences in the angular gyrus (AG)/temporaleparietal junction (TPJ) e both regions showed these effects for stimuli with all real words. These findings support a role for the ATL in semantic combination and the AG/TPJ in thematic processing.