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LINGUIST List 18.2507

Mon Aug 27 2007

Diss: Lang Acquisition/Psycholing/Semantics: Syrett: 'Learning Abou...'

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        1.    Kristen Syrett, Learning About the Structure of Scales: Adverbial modification and the acquisition of the semantics of gradable adjectives


Message 1: Learning About the Structure of Scales: Adverbial modification and the acquisition of the semantics of gradable adjectives
Date: 26-Aug-2007
From: Kristen Syrett <k-syrettnorthwestern.edu>
Subject: Learning About the Structure of Scales: Adverbial modification and the acquisition of the semantics of gradable adjectives
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Institution: Northwestern University
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2007

Author: Kristen Syrett

Dissertation Title: Learning About the Structure of Scales: Adverbial
modification and the acquisition of the semantics of
gradable adjectives

Dissertation URL:
http://www.ling.northwestern.edu/~syrett/index/left_data/papers/Syrett_Dissertation.pdf

Linguistic Field(s): Language Acquisition
Psycholinguistics
Semantics


Dissertation Director(s):
Stefan Kaufmann
Christopher D Kennedy
Jeffrey L Lidz
Sandra R Waxman

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation investigates children's early semantic representations of
gradable adjectives (GAs) and proposes that infants perform a probabilistic
analysis of the input to learn about abstract differences within this
category. I first demonstrate that children as young as age three
distinguish between relative (e.g., 'big', 'long'), maximum standard
absolute (e.g., 'full', 'straight'), and minimum standard absolute (e.g.,
'spotted', 'bumpy') GAs in the way that the standard of comparison is set
and how it interacts with the discourse context.

I then ask if adverbs enable infants to learn these differences. In a
corpus analysis, I demonstrate that statistically significant patterns of
adverbial modification are available to the language learner: restricted
adverbs (e.g., 'completely') are more likely than non-restricted adverbs
(e.g., 'very') to select for maximal GAs with bounded scales. Non-maximal
GAs, which are more likely to be modified by adverbs in general, are more
likely to be modified by a narrower range, predominantly composed of
intensifiers (e.g., 'very').

I then ask if language learners recruit this information when learning new
adjectives. In a word learning task employing the preferential looking
paradigm, I demonstrate that 30-month-olds use adverbial modifiers they are
not necessarily producing to assign an interpretation to novel adjectives.
Adjectives modified by 'completely' are assigned an interpretation
corresponding to an absolute property, while adjectives modified by 'very'
correspond to a relative property. Infants presented with an adjective
modified by no adverb, a novel adverb ('penticly'), or a low-frequency
intensifier ('extremely') pattern at chance.

I argue that a form-meaning correspondence similar to the one discussed in
verb learning is active in adjective learning. Infants are guided by their
conceptual representations when attending to the distributional patterns of
adverb-adjective bigrams in the exposure language, and expect that these
surface-level cues will partition the class of GAs according to differences
in scalar structure. I finish by connecting the structure of scales and
paths in linguistic representations, and suggest that given that infants
attend to the structure of paths when parsing events, it is optimistic to
expect that they might also attend to the structure of scales when
attending to properties.


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