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Experimental Semiotics  

Bruno Galantucci

Experimental Semiotics (ES) is a burgeoning new discipline aimed at investigating in the laboratory the development of novel forms of human communication. Conceptually connected to experimental research on language use, ES provides a scientific complement to field studies of spontaneously emerging new languages and studies on the emergence of communication systems among artificial agents. ES researchers have created quite a few research paradigms to investigate the development of novel forms of human communication. Despite their diversity, these paradigms all rely on the use of semiotic games, that is, games in which people can succeed reliably only after they have developed novel communication systems. Some of these games involve creating novel signs for pre-specified meanings. These games are particularly suitable for studying relatively large communication systems and their structural properties. Other semiotic games involve establishing shared meanings as well as novel signs to communicate about them. These games are typically rather challenging and are particularly suitable for investigating the processes through which novel forms of communication are created. Considering that ES is a methodological stance rather than a well-defined research theme, researchers have used it to address a greatly heterogeneous set of research questions. Despite this, and despite the recent origins of ES, two of these questions have begun to coalesce into relatively coherent research themes. The first theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to acquire features that are similar to key features of natural language. Most notably, they tend (a) to rely on the use of symbols—that is purely conventional signs—and (b) to adopt a combinatorial design, using a few basic units to express a large number of meanings. ES researchers have begun investigating some of the factors that lead to the acquisition of such features. These investigations suggest two conclusions. The first is that the emergence of symbols depends on the fact that, when repeatedly using non-symbolic signs, people tend to progressively abstract them. The second conclusion is that novel communication systems tend to adopt a combinatorial design more readily when their signs have low degrees of motivation and fade rapidly. The second research theme originates from the observation that novel communication systems developed in the laboratory tend to begin systematically with motivated—that is non-symbolic—signs. ES investigations of this tendency suggest that it occurs because motivation helps people bootstrap novel forms of communication. Put it another way, these investigations show that it is very difficult for people to bootstrap communication through arbitrary signs.


Psycholinguistics and Aging  

Michael Ramscar

Healthy aging is associated with many cognitive, linguistic, and behavioral changes. For example, adults’ reaction times slow on many tasks as they grow older, while their memories, appear to fade, especially for apparently basic linguistic information such as other people’s names. These changes have traditionally been thought to reflect declines in the processing power of human minds and brains as they age. However, from the perspective of the information-processing paradigm that dominates the study of mind, the question of whether cognitive processing capacities actually decline across the life span can only be scientifically answered in relation to functional models of the information processes that are presumed to be involved in cognition. Consider, for example, the problem of recalling someone’s name. We are usually reminded of the names of friends on a regular basis, and this makes us good at remembering them. However, as we move through life, we inevitably learn more names. Sometimes we hear these new names only once. As we learn each new name, the average exposure we will have had to any individual name we know is likely to decline, while the number of different names we know is likely to increase. This in turn is likely to make the task of recalling a particular name more complex. One consequence of this is as follows: If Mary can only recall names with 95% accuracy at age 60—when she knows 900 names—does she necessarily have a worse memory than she did at age 16, when she could recall any of only 90 names with 98% accuracy? Answering the question of whether Mary’s memory for names has actually declined (or improved even) will require some form of quantification of Mary’s knowledge of names at any given point in her life and the definition of a quantitative model that predicts expected recall performance for a given amount of name knowledge, as well as an empirical measure of the accuracy of the model across a wide range of circumstances. Until the early 21st century, the study of cognition and aging was dominated by approaches that failed to meet these requirements. Researchers simply established that Mary’s name recall was less accurate at a later age than it was at an earlier one, and took this as evidence that Mary’s memory processes had declined in some significant way. However, as computational approaches to studying cognitive—and especially psycholinguistic—processes and processing became more widespread, a number of matters related to the development of processing across the life span began to become apparent: First, the complexity involved in establishing whether or not Mary’s name recall did indeed become less accurate with age began to be better understood. Second, when the impact of learning on processing was controlled for, it became apparent that at least some processes showed no signs of decline at all in healthy aging. Third, the degree to which the environment—both in terms of its structure, and its susceptibility to change—further complicates our understanding of life-span cognitive performance also began to be better comprehended. These new findings not only promise to change our understanding of healthy cognitive aging, but also seem likely to alter our conceptions of cognition and language themselves.


Mirativity in Morphology  

Tyler Peterson

Broadly defined, mirativity is the linguistic term often used to describe utterances that speakers use to express their surprise at some unexpected state, event, or activity they experience. As an illustration, imagine the following scenario: rain is an infrequent occurrence in the Arizona desert, and the news forecast predicts another typically long stretch of sunny weather. Wanda and her colleague are planning a hike in the mountains that afternoon. Aware of this prediction, and being familiar with the typical desert climate, they step outside into the pouring rain. This elicits the surprise of Wanda: based on the weather forecast and coupled with her background knowledge, the rain is an unexpected event. As such, Wanda has a number of linguistic options for expressing her surprise to her colleague; for example, Wow, it’s raining!It’s raining!No way, it’s raining?(!)I can’t believe it’s raining(!)I see it’s raining(!)It looks like it’s raining(!)Look at all this rain(!) These utterances provide a sample of the diverse lexical and grammatical strategies a speaker of English can deploy in order to express surprise at an unexpected event, including expressive particles such as wow and no way, surprised intonational contours (orthographically represented by the exclamation mark ‘!’), rhetorical questions, expressions of disbelief, and evidential verbs such as look and see. When we look across the world’s languages we find that there is considerable intra- and cross-linguistic diversity in how mirative meanings are linguistically expressed. The examples above show how English lacks specific morphology dedicated to mirativity; however, the focus of this article is on the role morphology plays in the expression of mirative meanings.


Game Theory in Pragmatics: Evolution, Rationality, and Reasoning  

Michael Franke

Game theory provides formal means of representing and explaining action choices in social decision situations where the choices of one participant depend on the choices of another. Game theoretic pragmatics approaches language production and interpretation as a game in this sense. Patterns in language use are explained as optimal, rational, or at least nearly optimal or rational solutions to a communication problem. Three intimately related perspectives on game theoretic pragmatics are sketched here: (i) the evolutionary perspective explains language use as the outcome of some optimization process, (ii) the rationalistic perspective pictures language use as a form of rational decision-making, and (iii) the probabilistic reasoning perspective considers specifically speakers’ and listeners’ beliefs about each other. There are clear commonalities behind these three perspectives, and they may in practice blend into each other. At the heart of game theoretic pragmatics lies the idea that speaker and listener behavior, when it comes to using a language with a given semantic meaning, are attuned to each other. By focusing on the evolutionary or rationalistic perspective, we can then give a functional account of general patterns in our pragmatic language use. The probabilistic reasoning perspective invites modeling actual speaker and listener behavior, for example, as it shows in quantitative aspects of experimental data.


The Acquisition of Color Words  

Katie Wagner and David Barner

Human experience of color results from a complex interplay of perceptual and linguistic systems. At the lowest level of perception, the human visual system transforms the visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum into a rich, continuous three-dimensional experience of color. Despite our ability to perceptually discriminate millions of different color shades, most languages categorize color into a number of discrete color categories. While the meanings of color words are constrained by perception, perception does not fully define them. Once color words are acquired, they may in turn influence our memory and processing speed for color, although it is unlikely that language influences the lowest levels of color perception. One approach to examining the relationship between perception and language in forming our experience of color is to study children as they acquire color language. Children produce color words in speech for many months before acquiring adult meanings for color words. Research in this area has focused on whether children’s difficulties stem from (a) an inability to identify color properties as a likely candidate for word meanings, or alternatively (b) inductive learning of language-specific color word boundaries. Lending plausibility to the first account, there is evidence that children more readily attend to object traits like shape, rather than color, as likely candidates for word meanings. However, recent evidence has found that children have meanings for some color words before they begin to produce them in speech, indicating that in fact, they may be able to successfully identify color as a candidate for word meaning early in the color word learning process. There is also evidence that prelinguistic infants, like adults, perceive color categorically. While these perceptual categories likely constrain the meanings that children consider, they cannot fully define color word meanings because languages vary in both the number and location of color word boundaries. Recent evidence suggests that the delay in color word acquisition primarily stems from an inductive process of refining these boundaries.


Acquisition of Pragmatics  

Myrto Grigoroglou and Anna Papafragou

To become competent communicators, children need to learn that what a speaker means often goes beyond the literal meaning of what the speaker says. The acquisition of pragmatics as a field is the study of how children learn to bridge the gap between the semantic meaning of words and structures and the intended meaning of an utterance. Of interest is whether young children are capable of reasoning about others’ intentions and how this ability develops over time. For a long period, estimates of children’s pragmatic sophistication were mostly pessimistic: early work on a number of phenomena showed that very young communicators were egocentric, oblivious to other interlocutors’ intentions, and overall insensitive to subtle pragmatic aspects of interpretation. Recent years have seen major shifts in the study of children’s pragmatic development. Novel methods and more fine-grained theoretical approaches have led to a reconsideration of older findings on how children acquire pragmatics across a number of phenomena and have produced a wealth of new evidence and theories. Three areas that have generated a considerable body of developmental work on pragmatics include reference (the relation between words or phrases and entities in the world), implicature (a type of inferred meaning that arises when a speaker violates conversational rules), and metaphor (a case of figurative language). Findings from these three domains suggest that children actively use pragmatic reasoning to delimit potential referents for newly encountered words, can take into account the perspective of a communicative partner, and are sensitive to some aspects of implicated and metaphorical meaning. Nevertheless, children’s success with pragmatic communication is fragile and task-dependent.


Psycholinguistic Methods and Tasks in Morphology  

Daniel Schmidtke and Victor Kuperman

Lexical representations in an individual mind are not given to direct scrutiny. Thus, in their theorizing of mental representations, researchers must rely on observable and measurable outcomes of language processing, that is, perception, production, storage, access, and retrieval of lexical information. Morphological research pursues these questions utilizing the full arsenal of analytical tools and experimental techniques that are at the disposal of psycholinguistics. This article outlines the most popular approaches, and aims to provide, for each technique, a brief overview of its procedure in experimental practice. Additionally, the article describes the link between the processing effect(s) that the tool can elicit and the representational phenomena that it may shed light on. The article discusses methods of morphological research in the two major human linguistic faculties—production and comprehension—and provides a separate treatment of spoken, written and sign language.


Innateness of Language  

Yarden Kedar

A fundamental question in epistemological philosophy is whether reason may be based on a priori knowledge—that is, knowledge that precedes and which is independent of experience. In modern science, the concept of innateness has been associated with particular behaviors and types of knowledge, which supposedly have been present in the organism since birth (in fact, since fertilization)—prior to any sensory experience with the environment. This line of investigation has been traditionally linked to two general types of qualities: the first consists of instinctive and inflexible reflexes, traits, and behaviors, which are apparent in survival, mating, and rearing activities. The other relates to language and cognition, with certain concepts, ideas, propositions, and particular ways of mental computation suggested to be part of one’s biological make-up. While both these types of innatism have a long history (e.g., debate by Plato and Descartes), some bias appears to exist in favor of claims for inherent behavioral traits, which are typically accepted when satisfactory empirical evidence is provided. One famous example is Lorenz’s demonstration of imprinting, a natural phenomenon that obeys a predetermined mechanism and schedule (incubator-hatched goslings imprinted on Lorenz’s boots, the first moving object they encountered). Likewise, there seems to be little controversy in regard to predetermined ways of organizing sensory information, as is the case with the detection and classification of shapes and colors by the mind. In contrast, the idea that certain types of abstract knowledge may be part of an organism’s biological endowment (i.e., not learned) is typically met with a greater sense of skepticism. The most influential and controversial claim for such innate knowledge in modern science is Chomsky’s nativist theory of Universal Grammar in language, which aims to define the extent to which human languages can vary; and the famous Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus. The main Chomskyan hypothesis is that all human beings share a preprogrammed linguistic infrastructure consisting of a finite set of general principles, which can generate (through combination or transformation) an infinite number of (only) grammatical sentences. Thus, the innate grammatical system constrains and structures the acquisition and use of all natural languages.


Nonverbal Clauses in Wano: A Trans–New Guinea Language  

Willem Burung

West Papua has approximately 300 ethnic languages, which are classified into two main families: the Austronesian languages, of the coastal ethnic groups, and the Papuan languages, of the montane native dwellers. Papuan languages are further sub-divided into 43 language families, of which Trans–New Guinea is the largest in terms of number. Wano is a member of the Trans–New Guinea family. Clauses lacking a verb as a core element in their structures are known as nonverbal clauses, which are intransitive cross-linguistically. Languages like English may grammatically differentiate nonverbal clauses from nonverbal predicates, which is not so in languages like Wano that lack a copula. An English clause, he is my child, for instance, is a verbal clause with a nonverbal predicate, while its equivalent expression in Wano, at nabut ‘he is my child’, with its morphosyntactic structure {he/she/it 1s-child.of male possessor}, is a nonverbal clause with a nonverbal predicate. Nonverbal clauses in Wano may have the forms of (a) subject-predicate, for example, at nica ‘she is my mother’, with its morphosyntactic structure: {he/she/it 1s-mother}, where the inalienable kin noun, nica ‘my mother’ {1s-mother} is the predicate; and (b) subject-object-predicate, for example, kat an nabua ‘you.sg love me’, with its morphosyntactic structure: {you.sg I 1s-love’}, of which the cognition noun, nabua ‘my love’ {1s-love}, functions as predicate head. How a nonverbal clause could be transitive is a fundamental question that is worth the explanatory definition of Wano nouns in terms of their morphology-semantics-pragmatics interface. Noun morphology in Wano is straightforward yet may undergo complex semantic-pragmatic coding with respect to morphosyntactic structures. One reason is that in some kin terminologies, the language distinguishes the sex of the possessor, such as the inalienable kin phrase ‘my child’, that is, nabut, which has the morphological structure of {1s-child.of male possessor} or {1s-fatherling:child}; this is applicable only for male possessor, and nayak {1s-motherling:child} is for female possessor. The distinction may lead to semantic-pragmatic complexity for the interpretation of the English possessive phrase our child in Wano, which is either ninyabut ‘our child’ {1p-fatherling:child}, restricted to male possessors, or ninyayak ‘our child’ {1p-motherling:child}, restricted to female possessors. The other reason is the presence of a type of inalienable noun, that is, physiocognition nouns, in nonverbal clauses as predicate elements, for example, an nanop anduk ‘my head is painful’ {I 1s-head 3s-pain}, where the physiology noun anduk ‘his pain’ {3s-pain} is the predicate, and kat at enokweid ‘you.sg think of him’ {you.sg he 3s-mind} is the clause that has the cognition noun enokweid ‘his mind’ as predicate. Wano divides inalienable nouns into: (2.1) cultural nouns, for example, nayum ‘my netbag’ {1s-netbag}; (2.2) kin nouns, for example, kare ‘your.sg uncle’ {2s-uncle}; (2.3) body part nouns, for example, nanop ‘my head’ {1s-head} for (2.3.1) solid body part nouns and adian ‘his blood’ {3s-blood} for (2.3.2) liquid body part nouns; and (2.4) physiocognition nouns, for example, nabua ‘my love’ {1s-love} for (2.4.1) cognition nouns, and anduk ‘his pain’ {3s-pain} for (2.4.2) physiology nouns. Physiology nouns are found in the subject-predicate structure and cognition nouns in the subject-object-predicate.


Arthur Abramson  

Philip Rubin

Arthur Seymour Abramson (1925–2017) was an American linguist who was prominent in the international experimental phonetics research community. He was best known for his pioneering work, with Leigh Lisker, on voice onset time (VOT), and for his many years spent studying tone and voice quality in languages such as Thai. Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Abramson served several years in the Army during World War II. Upon his return to civilian life, he attended Columbia University (BA, 1950; PhD, 1960). There he met Franklin Cooper, an adjunct who taught acoustic phonetics while also working for Haskins Laboratories. Abramson started working on a part-time basis at Haskins and remained affiliated with the institution until his death. For his doctoral dissertation (1962), he studied the vowels and tones of the Thai language, which would sit at the heart of his research and travels for the rest of his life. He would expand his investigations to include various languages and dialects, such as Pattani Malay and the Kuai dialect of Suai, a Mon-Khmer language. Abramson began his collaboration with University Pennsylvania linguist Leigh Lisker at Haskins Laboratories in the 1960s. Using their unique VOT technique, a sensitive measure of the articulatory timing between an occlusion in the vocal tract and the beginning of phonation (characterized by the onset of vibration of the vocal folds), they studied the voicing distinctions of various languages. Their long standing collaboration continued until Lisker’s death in 2006. Abramson and colleagues often made innovative use of state-of-art tools and technologies in their work, including transillumination of the larynx in running speech, X-ray movies of speakers in several languages/dialects, electroglottography, and articulatory speech synthesis. Abramson’s career was also notable for the academic and scientific service roles that he assumed, including membership on the council of the International Phonetic Association (IPA), and as a coordinator of the effort to revise the International Phonetic Alphabet at the IPA’s 1989 Kiel Convention. He was also editor of the journal Language and Speech, and took on leadership roles at the Linguistic Society of America and the Acoustical Society of America. He was the founding Chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Connecticut, which became a hotbed for research in experimental phonetics in the 1970s and 1980s because of its many affiliations with Haskins Laboratories. He also served for many years as a board member at Haskins, and Secretary of both the Board and the Haskins Corporation, where he was a friend and mentor to many.


Models of Human Sentence Comprehension in Computational Psycholinguistics  

John Hale

Computational models of human sentence comprehension help researchers reason about how grammar might actually be used in the understanding process. Taking a cognitivist approach, this article relates computational psycholinguistics to neighboring fields (such as linguistics), surveys important precedents, and catalogs open problems.


Psycholinguistic Research on Inflectional Morphology in the Romance Languages  

Claudia Marzi and Vito Pirrelli

Over the past decades, psycholinguistic aspects of word processing have made a considerable impact on views of language theory and language architecture. In the quest for the principles governing the ways human speakers perceive, store, access, and produce words, inflection issues have provided a challenging realm of scientific inquiry, and a battlefield for radically opposing views. It is somewhat ironic that some of the most influential cognitive models of inflection have long been based on evidence from an inflectionally impoverished language like English, where the notions of inflectional regularity, (de)composability, predictability, phonological complexity, and default productivity appear to be mutually implied. An analysis of more “complex” inflection systems such as those of Romance languages shows that this mutual implication is not a universal property of inflection, but a contingency of poorly contrastive, nearly isolating inflection systems. Far from presenting minor faults in a solid, theoretical edifice, Romance evidence appears to call into question the subdivision of labor between rules and exceptions, the on-line processing vs. long-term memory dichotomy, and the distinction between morphological processes and lexical representations. A dynamic, learning-based view of inflection is more compatible with this data, whereby morphological structure is an emergent property of the ways inflected forms are processed and stored, grounded in universal principles of lexical self-organization and their neuro-functional correlates.