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Review of  Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory

Reviewer: Darcy Sperlich
Book Title: Empirical Approaches to Linguistic Theory
Book Author: Britta Stolterfoht Sam Featherston
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Issue Number: 24.2110

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This volume brings together a number of articles dedicated to empirical research informing linguistic theory. The book is divided into three distinct sections, ‘Methods and analysis’, ‘Applications to linguistic theory’ and ‘Cognitive and neurological basis of language’. The editors in their foreword briefly cover the trends of linguistic empirical research and its advantages for linguistic theorizing. They then provide a concise summary of each paper.

The first paper, ‘Incremental truth value judgments’ by Oliver Bott and Fabian Schlotterbeck, introduces a new methodology in the elicitation of data surrounding scope ambiguity. The method is dubbed ‘Incremental truth value judgment task’ (ITVJ). It differs from a normal TVJT in that instead of simply providing a truth-value statement about a certain context, the statement is introduced incrementally; the participants allow the sentence to continue (by computer) until they stop it at the point where it does not match the context. The authors collected reaction times of the participants allowing the sentence to continue, per part (in German). They find that their ITVJ provides clear data on distinguishing between judgments made online and those that are accessible post-interpretively (among other findings and theoretical implications), which is directly attributed to the success of the ITVJ.

‘Measuring Syntactic Priming in Dialogue Corpora’ by Christian Pietsch, Armin Buch, Stefan Kopp and Jan de Ruiter investigates lexical syntactic priming from a corpus perspective. After reviewing the literature on syntactic priming, they move on to the methodology used in their corpus analysis. Their approach uses simple analytical measures when compared to previous experiments, nevertheless providing clear results; being that repeating syntactic structures points to priming.

‘How structure-sensitive is the parser? Evidence from Mandarin Chinese’ by Zhong Chen, Lena Jäger and Shravan Vasishth presents a study on Principle A of Binding Theory in Mandarin Chinese. Specifically, they review an approach to reflexives which does not appeal to phi-features of person, gender and number in the search for antecedents, which they disagree with. Furthermore, they point to problems with studies that have low statistical power; that is the effects observed may in fact be due to an insignificant sample size which leads to null results. Their experiment involves the interpretation of ‘ziji’ (self) by native Chinese speakers, between interfering and non-interfering subjects. Their results suggest that non-structural cues also play a part in the resolution of ‘ziji’.

Antje Müller, Claudia Roch, Tobias Stadtfeld and Tibor Kiss in ‘The annotation of preposition senses in German’ investigate polysemy of prepositions in German. They concentrate on the senses of prepositions and how they map to prepositional lexemes, limiting their corpus study to preposition-noun forms. After establishing the senses studied in the corpus and the experimental methodology, they cover spatial and temporal senses found within their corpus, providing detailed trees. Finally, the authors give special attention to ‘ohne’ (without) as it often occurs in preposition-noun constructions rather than prepositional phrases, e.g. ‘Eine Mofalenkerin, die ohne Helm unterwegs war...’.

In ‘Evidence about evidentials: Where fieldwork meets theory’, Lisa Matthewson argues that evidentials and epistemic modals are one and the same category, drawing data from an endangered language, St’át’imcets (Lillooet Salish). Matthewson reviews research showing similarities between evidentials and epistemic modals. She focuses on the evidential ‘lákw7a’ and how it appears to belong to both categories, discussing tests which try to differentiate between modals and non-modals, and she discusses these in comparison to other languages. She concludes however, that it cannot be proved that all evidentials are modals, but shows problems with tests that are supposed to distinguish between the two.

The paper ‘Crosslinguistic variation in comparison: evidence from child language acquisition’ by Sonja Tiemann, Vera Hohaus and Sigrid Beck discusses the acquisition of comparative constructions in English and German, drawing data from CHILDES. They start with semantic theory in relation to comparatives, and then apply it to comparison constructions crosslinguistically; testing the prediction of a semantic theory (called B17) relating to child language acquisition. They found that the theory successfully predicts the acquisitional path, and crosslinguistic comparison of pronominal measure constructions yields interesting results.

The next article ‘Restricting quantifier scope in Dutch: Evidence from child language comprehension and production’ by Petra Hendriks, Ruth Koops van’t Jagt and John Hoeks investigates quantifier scope in children’s Dutch compared to adults. They begin with a review of syntactic, semantic and pragmatic explanations for the differences between the two age groups, wherein they focus on Optimality Theory. Their experiment sets out to answer which theory best predicts the production and interpretation in both groups. They found in both tasks that results differed from each other, showing that the pragmatic theory accounts for the comprehension data, while the Optimality Theory does better at both data types.

Janneke Huitink in ‘McGee’s counterexample to Modus Ponens in context’ starts by backgrounding Modus Ponens (If p, then q. P. Therefore q.) and McGee’s famous counterexample -- ‘If a Republican wins the election, then if it’s not Reagan who wins it will be Anderson. A Republican will win the election. If it’s not Reagan who wins, it will be Anderson.’ In 1980, Reagan had a commanding lead, with Carter trailing behind, and Anderson coming a distant third -- there is little reason to believe that Anderson could win. Huitink presents an experiment of the construct of McGee-like examples, in order to show the psychological reality of the Ramsey test. The experimental results show that context certainly can affect the Modus Ponens inferences. Finally, Huitink enters a philosophical discussion on the validity of the Modus Ponens.

‘Interpreting adjectival passives: Evidence for the activation of contrasting states’ by Berry Claus and Olga Kriukova discusses the interpretation of adjectives and adjectival passives in German. After reviewing the relevant literature and the characteristics of adjectival passives, they focus on a suggestion that processing adjectival passives contrasts the current (target) state to a past state (e.g. an open window to a closed one), whereas adjectives do not go through such processing. This distinction should be measurable by observing time latencies, and the authors specifically test this proposal using picture verification tasks. Their experiment supports the distinction postulated.

‘Focus projection between theory and evidence’ by Kordula De Kuthy and Detmar Meurers investigates the part played by syntax and pragmatics in focus constructions, through corpus evidence in comparison to the reviewed experimental evidence. For example, ‘John rented a bicycle’, said in response to ‘What did John rent?’, ‘a bicycle’ is the new information, receiving stress. Two possible explanations for this are syntactic (in terms of the focus projection) or purely pragmatic. The experimental evidence reviewed shows that pragmatics has difficulty explaining the large data variation, whereas the focus projection rule does a better job. The authors add to the evidence via their own corpus study (in German, through two corpora), showing that neither approach adequately capture the data completely.

The paper ‘Locative Inversion in English: Implications of a Rating Study’, by Sara Holler and Jutta M. Hartmann investigates locative inversion (LI) in English, ‘Into the room walked John’, in a variety of questions, focusing on the unaccusative and unergative verbs affecting LI. Their experimental results show that LI occurs with both unaccusative and unergative verbs with heavy inversion, but also with light inversion with unergative verbs (which is not predicted theoretically). They review an alternative theory (that unergative verbs derive from the movement of verbs) to solve this problem, and also suggest a Phonetic Form movement alternative. They conclude that it is not transitivity that affects LI, but the information structure of LI (e.g. to set a scene).

The first paper of the final section, ‘Word- vs. sentence-based simulation effects in language comprehension’ by Barbara Kaup, Jana Lüdtke and Ilona Steiner, explores cognitive simulations created by sentences and words, asking specifically whether or not individual words in a sentence affect the simulation (regardless of syntax), or the sentence as a whole. Through three experiments they find that word effects explain the data better than sentence effects, however the authors conclude that sentence-based processes cannot be ruled out at present.

Eleonore Schwilling, Karen Lidzba, Andreas Konietzko, Susanne Winkler and Ingebord Krägeloh-Mann in ‘Language skills in patients with reorganized language (RL)’ present a clinical study focused on patients with left hemispheric brain damage, who have reorganised their (German) language into their right hemisphere. They test language comprehension and production between them and normal speakers. This includes children, adolescents and young adults, using a variety of linguistic tasks and functional neuroimaging. Their results show that differences lie in complex structures (in German), e.g. with sentences with noncanonical word order. They conclude that the hypothesis of the right hemisphere fully taking over from the left hemisphere cannot adequately account for their findings.

The final paper, ‘Predicting speech imitation ability biometrically’ by Susanne Reiterer, Nandini C. Singh and Susanne Winkler, investigates individual differences in speech imitation. Using neuroimaging and modulation spectrum analysis, they aim to show where talented and untalented speech imitators differ. Using fMRI, they scanned (German-speaking) participants pronouncing an unfamiliar language (Hindi), and producing English-accented German. fMRI scans show less talented speakers use their speech production areas more than talented speakers, and that less talented speakers have a smaller articulation space.

Beginning the appraisal with the first section of the book, Bott and Schlotterbeck’s introduction of a new methodology to disentangle scope ambiguity readings is a welcome step, as it shows the challenge certain semantic theories face to adequately describe their results. The next paper by Pietsch, Buch, Kopp and Ruiter is short but precise to the point: this is the new methodology developed, here is its use and the results produced. Chen, Jäger and Vasishth’s study on Chinese ‘ziji’ is well thought out, and they have recruited a large participant base to back up their findings. The authors make a valid point about being cautious in how to interpret null results, as it may simply be a result of the experiment having low statistical power. The corpus study by Müller, Roch, Stadtfeld and Kiss shows the amount of time the authors put into developing an annotational scheme of German prepositional senses which will undoubtedly be of great use in further research of other Germans prepositional senses, not to mention the possibility of extending it to other languages.

Reviewing the second section, Matthewson’s research on an endangered language brings an added perspective that data from languages like German and English cannot provide. Specifically, although her proposal that all evidentials are modals failed, it nonetheless casts doubts upon the tests used to distinguish between the two, leaving the area open for further inquiry. The article on comparatives by Tiemann, Hohaus and Beck does well to show that the B17 theory is in accordance with the child language data, and also in teasing apart the differences between pronominal measure constructions (PMP) and overt direct measure phrases (MP) and their crosslinguistic implications. It is here that I disagree with a piece of data supposedly showing that Mandarin Chinese does not allow MPs; the authors give this as ungrammatical ‘*Yuehan shi yi mi qi gao’ (Yuehan be one meter seven tall), which is an MP. Not allowing this construction in Mandarin Chinese is taken to show that the language does not have MPs but this is an incorrect conclusion. If one drops ‘shi’, the sentence is perfectly acceptable, as in ‘Yuehan yi mi qi gao’, and just to confirm this, I consulted 10 native speakers of Northern Mandarin, all finding this sentence to be normal. Therefore, in light of this, Mandarin does have MP (along with PMP as the authors note), putting it inline with the languages the authors discuss, p. 139. The child acquisition article by Hendriks, Jagt and Hoeks challenges the pragmatic account given by Philip (e.g. 2011), and while they find similar data for comprehension, the authors provide extra evidence in production to support their conclusion -- which provides a better-rounded picture than just studying comprehension alone. Huitink’s experiment and discussion on the Modus Ponens is a fascinating read, as the article goes to great lengths to show experimentally how the Modus Ponens lives up to the gathered data, and its consequences for philosophy. Claus and Kriukova’s experiment is well designed and detailed, and takes into account a variety of features. Importantly, their contribution to contrasting states in adjectival passives is a first, and gives further credence to the semantic and pragmatic theories that predict this. The corpus study by Kuthy and Meurers offers an extensive review of the evidential literature, and they are able to draw strong conclusions combining their own natural corpus evidence with experiments, and in a nutshell their findings suggest to pursue both a syntactic and pragmatic path towards focus constructions. Also, it is good that they offer audio links but the website provided on p. 229 doesn’t work (however Google gives a close enough website). Holler and Hartmann’s experiment on locative inversion provides good evidence on the supposed restrictions of locative inversion, finding that what was theorised previously is not supported by their data, forcing rethinking of the issue. I note an issue in using a scale of 1-7 which only explains what 1 and 7 means (from what was described in the experiment); it would be better to label all numerical categories to allow consistent treatment (but see Dienes 2008). Also, having a mid-point can also be troublesome at times, for a participant might use it to represent an ‘I don’t know’ category (Sorace 1988), i.e. when comparing it to 7 ‘natural and highly acceptable’, 4 could mean ‘natural and acceptable’, both which are not dissimilar. Moreover, the means found were roughly between 3-4, which may show participants view 4 as the ‘natural’ mark.

In the final part of the book, Kaup, Lüdtke and Steiner’s cognitive paper looks at word versus sentence based effects, but their evidence is far from conclusive. While they find support for lexical based effects, they could not rule out sentence effects. This does not show the failure of the experiment but rather the great difficulty one has to tease apart the two effects (even though they considered many factors). The results shown by Schwilling, Lidzba, Konietzko, Winkler and Krägeloh-Mann have raised an important line of inquiry, that is, from their study one cannot assume that the right hemisphere fully takes over the linguistic capabilities of the left hemisphere, given their in-depth look at complex grammatical structures. The final paper by Reiterer, Singh and Winkler innovatively combines neurolinguistic and phonetic evidence to distinguish between low and high imitation ability in speakers. Being able to distinguish between these speakers opens a window as to why they differ so much, with the authors suggesting that auditory working memory plays a large role.

There are only minor criticisms to make. There appears to be some formatting inconsistency across chapters, e.g. at times after a colon the word begins with a capital letter whilst others do not. There are some spelling mistakes, e.g. ‘experimetn’, p. 286, but overall these do little to detract from the quality of the articles. There are, on the other hand, numerous good points that recommend this book. One of its strengths is the breadth of the articles offered; one can read about first language acquisition, endangered languages to neurolinguistic studies, all in one volume. One comes away with a much stronger understanding of work in the various subfields; regardless of one’s own linguistic orientation; there is something for everybody here. Secondly, the articles on experimentation give a taste of the theory under consideration and then present the linguistic evidence, allowing the reader to come to a more objective understanding of the issue. Finally, throughout all the experiments described one will pick up pointers and suggestions on experimental methodology (including new methodology), which is valuable for anyone wanting to see the latest experimental methodologies.

In sum, this volume is highly recommended for experimental researchers and non-experimental linguists alike who are interested in pursuing the hard data.

Dienes, Z. (2008). Subjective measures of unconscious knowledge. Progress in Brain Research 168, 49--64.

Philip, W. (2011). Acquiring Knowledge of Universal Quantification. In J. de Villers and T. Roeper (eds.), Handbook of Generative Approaches to Language Acquisition, 351--394. Dordrecht: Springer.

Sorace, A. (1988). Linguistic intuitions in language development: The problem of interdeterminacy. In J. Pankhurst, M. S. Smith and P. V. Buren (eds.), Learnability and second languages: A book of readings, 167--190. Dordrecht: Foris.
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 awaiting his final examination at the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland. His thesis investigates 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.