Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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EDITOR: Jeffrey T. Runner, editor TITLE: Experiments at the Interfaces SERIES TITLE: Syntax and Semantics, Volume 37 PUBLISHER: Emerald Group Publishing Limited YEAR: 2011
Darcy Sperlich, Department of Applied Linguistics and Language Studies, University of Auckland / School of English, Manukau Institute of Technology
SUMMARY Runner begins the book by giving a brief overview of the articles contained in this volume.
1 Interface Effects: Serbian Clitics -- Molly Diesing, Draga Zec The first study investigates the Serbian second-position clitic ‘je’, which can be placed either after the first word (1W) in the sentence, or after the first phrase (1P), positions which have been considered simply interchangeable in previous descriptions. The authors note the limitations of previous studies, and explore argument-initial and predicate-initial sentences, together with branching and nonbranching phrases where ‘je’ may be placed. They argue that the position of ‘je’ is determined by discourse, structural and prosodic features. Using corpus data (synchronic and diachronic), together with experimental evidence, and conclude that differences were found between the argument and predicate placement of ‘je’.
They then look at a previous study on the placement of ‘je’ (which confirmed what the authors suspected), flowing to the main experiment. This experiment presented biased and neutral contexts (combined with argument and predicate-initial positioning) for ‘je’, and found that the basic pattern held. This leads to the further investigation of context, finding that discourse, structural and prosodic features all are important in determining the placement of ‘je’ (1W/1P), namely in an argument versus predicate-initial of branching and nonbranching phrases. They conclude that placement of ‘je’ is not simply optional, but dictated by a combination of different interfaces.
2 I'm Leaking Oil and Looking for a Garage: Testing Conditions on Meaning Transfer -- Sam Featherston, Klaus von Heusinger, Hanna Weiland This study examines shifts in meaning with the German nominalizing suffix ‘–ung’, in three different experiments. The article starts by reviewing shifts in meaning, such as ‘I am parked out back’, in which ‘I’ might mean ‘my car’ or ‘(I am) the driver of the car which is…’, which in turn represents a subject or a predicate shift. The authors note that context can trigger either a Result or Event reading, discuss issues of preferred versus forced interpretation, controlling context versus lexical items, and the problem of how to generalize the results.
The background on meaning shift leads to discussion of ‘-ung’ and ultimately the aims of the study. Moving onto the first experiment (asking participants to judge test sentences), they use the local optimum method by controlling the context to suit the differing lexical items used -- testing the acceptability of sentences, divided by Result/Event within either a NP/VP, and their relatedness. Experiment two used the identity method by matching a small array of lexical items to a particular context, and using the ‘Thermometer Judgments’ method to test acceptability (an evolution from Magnitude Estimation). Results show that firstly the identity method is superior to local optimum, which captures the intuitions on the ambiguous readings of ‘-ung’. The final study focuses on the factor of relatedness, finding its effect remains constant. Finally, the observations of the experiments are bought to the fore, and the methodologies revisited.
3 Tracking the Preference for Bound-Variable Dependencies in Ambiguous Ellipses and Only-Structures --Arnout W. Koornneef, Sergey Avrutin, Frank Wijnen, Eric Reuland The authors begin by covering two different hypotheses about pronoun resolution, a single route (e.g. via discourse) and a dual route (e.g. via logical syntax and discourse). It is the latter hypothesis that current the study is conducted against, using Reuland’s Primitives of Binding (POB) framework. The aim is to investigate whether there is a processing difference in strict/sloppy readings of pronouns in VP-ellipsis and ‘only’ structures, which is predicted by the POB account on grounds of economy. The literature reviewed finds favourable evidence for it, although not compelling.
The first experiment (off-line) tested four different conditions, bias to either the strict or sloppy antecedent, within an ellipsis or ‘only’ structure. The experiment presents a story (in Dutch) with the target sentence, and participants are then given two sentences and asked to rate how the sentence relates to the story on a scale of 1-5, indicating which sentence they preferred. Also, they indicated the difficulty and plausibility of each story on a 1-5 scale. Results show that bias worked well, while obtaining a sloppy interpretation was slightly easier than a strict one (predicted by the POB to be more economical), and the ellipsis and ‘only’ structure were treated much the same.
Experiment two (eye tracking) was based on the previous test materials, using the most successful stories in inducing bias to either strict or sloppy readings. Overall, sloppy interpretations are found to be more economical than strict interpretations, which are clearly reflected in the measures. Among other things, they also find reason to investigate a problem which can actually be attributed to individual differences, as some decide to establish a coreferential relation in the first conjunct, which helps them in the second conjunct of the ellipsis/ ‘only’ structure region. They conclude by bringing in converging evidence from neurolinguistic experiments, which largely support the POB approach.
4 Most Meanings are Superlative --Hadas Kotek, Yasutada Sudo, Edwin Howard, Martin Hackl The chapter begins by discussing the superlative and proportional aspects of ‘most’, especially in subject position. They review the literature and argue for a structural approach to the readings of ‘most’. They cover their representations in semantic theory, which motivates their experiment. In each experiment that follows, they used either 2 and/or 3 groups of colored dots in a picture, with varying number of dots (e.g. 7 blue dots, 4 red and 4 yellow dots) asking participants to match sentences such as ‘most/ more than half of/ the dots are blue’ to the picture.
The first experiment uses the ‘covered box’ methodology, where two pictures are shown and participants match sentences to one of them. If they believe that the pictures do not match the sentence, they can opt for a third unseen picture covered by a box (participants are told one of these pictures will match the sentence) -- this helps in detecting a less preferred interpretation. The second experiment includes three different colors compared to the previous two, and instead of a covered box a rating task was opted for, as well as a different method in presenting the dots. The last experiment includes reaction timing and self-paced counting of dots. The authors provide a detailed discussion of reaction times and confidence levels, and their results point to two different readings for ‘most’ in the subject position, a proportional readings (dominant) and a superlative one (latent, and previously unnoticed in the literature).
Finally, the authors overview all the experiments and compare them to another experiment with different results, before discussing the semantics ‘most’ and how this might interact with other components to provide the superlative reading.
5 Grammatical Illusions and Selective Fallibility in Real-Time Language Comprehension -- Colin Phillips, Matthew W. Wagers, Ellen F. Lau This study comments upon ‘linguistic illusions’, which are ungrammatical sentences that appear to be grammatical at first glance, e.g. ‘The key to the cabinets are on the table’. They begin by comparing two ways the processer could retrieve information, searching in a syntactic tree to find subject-verb agreement, for example. The second type is ‘content-addressable access’, where the parser assesses the incoming information based upon cue strength, checking for the closest match, which may lead to inaccuracies.
The authors then review structures made ungrammatical that are easy to detect (no illusion), which is useful in measuring the performance of search mechanisms. The first structure reviewed is island constraints, e.g. wh-extraction *‘who do you wonder whether the press secretary spoke with?’, which is referred to as an ‘active’ dependency formation. This means the dependency is constructed in advance before information pertaining to the position of the gap disambiguates it. The second is backwards anaphora, as in ‘As he wrote the review, John wondered about the word count’, which if accounted for under Principle C of the Binding theory, helps to understand c-command violations. The last is forwards anaphora, as in ‘The banker didn’t want the judge to convict himself’, which has syntactic constraints (e.g. Principle A) and pragmatic ones (e.g. neo-Gricean pragmatics).
The next topic is grammatical illusions, thought to be a result of constraints not impacting on processing as much as those just discussed. Subject-verb agreement, or the lack of it, tends to happen with marked pronouns, e.g. plural. Incorrect case licensing in German may be detected but to different degrees, e.g. dative problems are more detectable than nominative. Forward anaphora of the pronoun type has trouble being accounted by Principle B (having pragmatic constraints), where they look at child and adult comprehension studies that show processing problems when number and gender are altered. The same can be said of negative polarity items (e.g. any). The final item is comparative illusions, ‘More people have been to Russia than I have’, which have been shown to be very hard to detect.
Finally, the authors discuss the possible reasons for these illusions; directionality, locality, higher order representations, and structural priority, the major proposal. It is structural information which leads to dependency formation. When the parser comes across something incorrect it looks for other cues, resulting in illusions. The authors sum up by applying this to the illusions discussed.
6 Seeing what you Mean, Mostly -- Paul Pietroski, Jeff Lidz, Tim Hunter, Darko Odic, Justin Halberda This article continues the previous theme of investigating ‘most’, as in ‘Most of the dots are yellow’, but instead focusing upon its semantic representation and how this is constructed in thought. The authors first discuss how words might be associated with meaning and how this is achieved. For instance, logical vocabulary has an analytical component to its meaning, and in the case of ‘many’ its meaning may relate to the Approximate Number System (ANS), but it is not entirely clear on which strategy a speaker might analyse ‘most’.
The authors present possible ways in which ‘most’ might be computed, focusing on the theory that it is analysed in terms of ‘cardinalities’, and discuss how this could be implemented among various theoretical constructs. Reviewing previous studies, they reject the OnetoOnePlus model over the ANS, and discuss the problems of ‘most’ meaning ‘significantly more’. They then introduce the ITT (acronym only provided) from a previous study by Lidz et al., which is a model of how verification procedures are computed, giving an in depth discussion. The final section looks at other uses of ‘most’, e.g. with count nouns.
7 On the Representational Nature of Representational Noun Phrases -- Jeffrey T. Runner, Micah B. Goldwater The final article considers the English anaphor ‘himself’, comparing its use as a direct object reflexive (DOR) as in ‘John hit himself’, and as a Representational Noun Phrase’ (RNP) as in ‘John pointed at a picture of himself’. They first review work on syntactic/semantic binding of ‘himself’ in these two uses, and cover their interpretation in ellipsis. This leads to the first experiment, testing DOR and RNP using a scene verification task (identifying a sentence with a picture) in a variety of structures (with two referents). Results show that RNP are interpreted more coreferentially than DOR in ellipsis contexts, which they point out is unusual (for the DOR) where Binding theory is concerned.
The authors cover proxy readings of reflexives, i.e. the ‘statue’ readings as in ‘Ringo Starr fell on top of himself’, when discussing the person himself and his statue. This leads to a second experiment to tease out the differences between proxy and NP in ellipsis contexts. They find in a similar vein to the first experiment, that proxy interpretations attract more coreferential interpretations than DOR.
The final experiment (eye tracking) tested various conditions of the reflexive. Overall, proxy readings are interpreted to be more coreferential, and the eye tracking reveals that there is a difference between how proxy and nonproxy are processed, even though the final result appears to be similar (in choosing the antecedent).
The authors conclude with an unified account of proxy and RNP reflexives, considering a structural and a semantic approach.
EVALUATION We first discuss each chapter and offer our viewpoints, before discussing the book as a whole.
Diesing and Zec’s study of clitic placements unravels quite succinctly the factors that dictate the use of ‘je’. A point of criticism may be levelled at the experimental process, in that when presenting the stimuli, together with two sentences side by side with differing clitic placement, and asking which one appears more natural, one may risk introducing response bias. The forced choice could mask finer details between the two; perhaps they could have presented the two sentences in separate sections of the survey, and ask to judge its naturalness on its own, which would require a Likert scale (or magnitude estimation). The use of prosody to show the differences between the ‘je’s provide another angle but it is not noted whether the pitch chart shown applies to various speakers, or just one.
Featherston et al.’s paper on the varied interpretations of ‘-ung’ is interesting, especially the great extent they have mapped out all methodological considerations for each experiment. Considering how the experiments evolve and which principles guide them is an inspiration to anyone testing meaning; it is exactly this kind of careful consideration of all the possible factors that an experimenter would find valuable.
It was pleasing to see that Koornneef et al.’s experiments had their theoretical roots in Reuland’s theory, rather than the older Binding theory. It is good that the authors pilot the study first in an off-line task, rather than just doing an on-line task first. Also of note is their examination of individual differences, which were borne out to be true; what interests me is why we find two groups of the same language speakers acting differently, one making use of discourse strategies early on, while the other does not? (See Sequeiros (2004) for a Second Language Acquisition perspective.)
Kotek et. al. provide a series of experiments which set out the proportional/superlative meaning of ‘most’. The methods are most interesting, from the ‘covered box’ methodology to alternating colours. These approaches are invaluable for those who wish to tease out ambiguous meanings in words which would not be apparent by looking at introspection alone.
Phillips et al. provide a select overview of grammatical illusions, and offer their insight into what might be occurring. While there are many interesting things to comment on, one which caught my eye was the tentative suggestion that reflexives in argument positions should not be able to long distance bind (in English at least), because only structural features are used in search for antecedents. This means that the phi-features of reflexives are irrelevant, and such a suggestion would have implications for theories of anaphora that rely on morphological differences between reflexive types (e.g. Reuland 2011).
Pietroski et al. offer a deep theoretical analysis of ‘most’ while using experimental studies to back up their claims. While not being particularly conversant in the nuances of semantic representations, I found their article quite enlightening as to how a speaker might represent ‘most’ mentally.
The final article by Runner and Goldwater on anaphora is interesting as again eye tracking shows differences in how a speaker processes these reflexives in different contexts, which would not be so obvious if we just looked at their final product. Their experiment seems to fit in well with what Kennedy and Lidz (2001) find, namely that in ellipsis constructions (in a comparative structure) the elided anaphor has a long distance antecedent, hence the question is whether or not this could be incorporated into their own analysis.
Considering the volume as a whole, the articles fit well with each other, are sufficient in depth and explain the issues well. Furthermore, as noted in the introduction, the hope is that these articles will inspire further research -- they do because of the wide range of methodologies used and questions asked are worthy of further application. The only criticism I could offer is the narrow range of topics covered, three on anaphora, and two on ‘most’. Runner does note that only recently has the experimental component been used in conjunction with formal linguistics, which is a good thing, and perhaps explains the relatively narrow focus of the topics and the state of the field. To conclude, I would recommend this volume to those interested in the syntax/semantic interface and more specifically in experimental methodology.
REFERENCES Kennedy, C. and J. Lidz (2001). A (Covert) Long Distance Anaphor in English. Proceedings of the 20th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics. K. Megerdoomian and L.A. Bar-el. Somerville, MA, Cascadilla Press: 318-331.
Reuland, E. (2011). Anaphora and Language Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.
Sequeiros, X.R. (2004). ''Interpretation of reflexive anaphora in second language VP-ellipsis: Relevance Theory and paradigms of explanation.'' Second Language Research 20(3): 256-280.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Darcy Sperlich is currently a senior lecturer of ESOL in the School of
English at the Manukau Institute of Technology, in Auckland, New Zealand.
He is also a PhD candidate in his final year at the Department of Applied
Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland,
investigating anaphoric interpretation in Chinese Mandarin by speakers of
other languages, and whether or not this suggests an anaphoric
pragmatic/syntactic division of labour in the languages concerned,
involving a combination of psycho- and theoretical linguistics, as well as
SLA. His other research interests include Chinese comparative dialectology,
especially as related to syntax.