Joint Ling-Psych Colloquium next Wednesday (1/28): Levy

Roger Levy (UC San Diego) will give a joint Linguistics/Psychology colloquium Wednesday 1/28 at 3:45PM in Jordan Hall Room 041 (420-041).  There will be a reception in the Jordan Hall Lounge immediately afterward.

Expectation-based language comprehension and production

Using language to communicate is central to what makes us human. Elucidating the knowledge, expectations, and cognitive resources that allow us to communicate so effectively is one of the most fundamental problems in the study of mind. For much of the contemporary history of psychology and linguistics, motivated by the ideas of figures including Chomsky, Miller, and Fodor, work on this problem has conceptualized language processing as centrally about modular structure-building operations and the memory resources required to carry them out. Here I describe an alternative approach that conceptualizes language processing as centrally about rational, goal-driven inference and action. First, I outline a state-of-the-art theory of expectation-based incremental language understanding, in which comprehenders integrate diverse information sources from preceding context to guide interpretation of current input. This theory unifies three key, seemingly disparate topics in the domain of language understanding — ambiguity resolution, prediction, and syntactic complexity effects — and finds broad empirical support in data from both controlled experiments and naturalistic language understanding. Second, I describe several apparent empirical puzzles for this theory that ultimately lead us to revisit one of the implicit foundational assumptions in all theories of language understanding: that of modularity between the processes of word recognition and of inter-word, utterance-level comprehension. I generalize the expectation-based theory to a fully bidirectional, interactive theory of word recognition and utterance comprehension, and show how this generalized theory solves the apparent puzzles and leads to a range of new, empirically verified predictions. Finally, I touch briefly on the consequences of this view for language production: why do speakers choose to structure their utterances the way they do? The expectation-based theory novelly predicts that speakers use the options afforded them by their native language to come as close as possible to a uniform distribution of information content throughout their utterance. We confirm this prediction through statistical analysis of speaker choices regarding optional word omission in naturalistic speech.

Colloquium Today (1/23) at 3:30PM: Merlo

Our next departmental colloquium will be given by Paola Merlo (University of Geneva), on Friday 1/23 at 3:30 in the Greenberg Room.

Linguistic issues in Multi-lingual Natural Language Processing

Current natural language technology shows great interest in multi-lingual tasks. Multi-lingual approaches leverage two apparently contradictory properties of all languages: languages are both very different from each other in their lexical and grammatical properties, but they are very similar to each other at more abstract levels. While
the goal of these multi-lingual tasks is driven by technology, there are linguistic lessons to be gleaned by looking at what features, linguistic properties, annotations and tools are valid across languages, allowing us to begin to test theories of language universals on a truly large scale.

I will discuss two case studies related to this topic. The first case study shows that corpus data and typological data involving the causative alternation exhibit interesting correlations explained by the notion of spontaneity of an event. This notion also explains patterns of variation in the translation of the causative construction
in parallel corpora. The second case study is work in progress: we use counts collected from tree-annotated dependency corpora to tease apart different theories of language universals.

Work in collaboration with Tanja Samardzic and Kristina Gulordava.

Psycholinguistics Group Meeting Thursday (1/29) at 4PM: Levy

Roger Levy will also speak at the Psycholinguistics Group meeting next Thursday at 4PM in the Greenberg Room.

Is grammatical knowledge probabilistic? Theory and evidence

Since the advent of generative grammar, the dominant characterization of human grammatical knowledge has been as categorical: a collection of rules or constraints determining the sentences in the language. Yet the same tradition has long recognized that acceptability judgments are graded. In this talk I take up the proposal that the reason for this gradedness is that grammatical knowledge is not categorical, but fundamentally probabilistic. Despite the recent proliferation of probabilistic methods in linguistics and related fields, this proposal remains controversial: on a skeptical view, perhaps probability is not part of grammatical knowledge per se, but simply proxies for extra-linguistic knowledge and describes inference under uncertainty in acquisition and processing. Here I argue that the classic criteria of descriptive and explanatory adequacy point towards a role for probability in grammar. I provide new evidence that a key constraint on syntactic coordination, the preference for like conjuncts, cannot be stated in categorical terms that are empirically valid, but has extensive coverage and support when stated probabilistically. When combined with previously adduced theory and data, this work yields the strongest case to date that at least some central components of grammatical knowledge are fundamentally probabilistic.

P-Interest Workshop Meeting Today (1/23) at Noon

Join the P-Interest Workshop Meeting today at noon in the Greenberg Room, as they discuss Daniel Silverman’s 2012 book, Neutralization: Rhyme and Reason in Phonology.

From the book:
The function of language is to transmit information from speakers to listeners. This book investigates an aspect of linguistic sound patterning that has traditionally been assumed to interfere with this function – neutralization, a conditioned limitation on the distribution of a language’s contrastive values. The book provides in-depth, nuanced and critical analyses of many theoretical approaches to neutralization in phonology and argues for a strictly functional characterization of the term: neutralizing alternations are only function-negative to the extent that they derive homophones, and most surprisingly, neutralization is often function-positive, by serving as an aid to parsing. Daniel Silverman encourages the reader to challenge received notions by carefully considering these functional consequences of neutralization.

2015 SemFest coming up, and call for abstracts

Mark your calendars! The Sixteenth Annual Stanford Semantics Fest will be held on the afternoon of Friday, March 13.

The Semantics Fest is intended to promote discussion and collaboration among all those in the Stanford community interested in the semantics and pragmatics of natural language, as well as their interface with other modules of grammar. We encourage contributions from all those who are participants in Linguistics Department semantics or pragmatics events or members of the Stanford University community who share these interests.

Abstracts are invited for 20 minute talks (plus 10 minutes of discussion) on any topic touching on semantics and pragmatics in natural language. All abstracts should be submitted as plain text or pdf in 12 point font and be no more than 1 page long; a second page may include references. Abstracts are due by 5pm on Friday, February 6th, 2015. All submissions should be emailed to Sara Kessler, Notification of acceptance will be made about two weeks later.

Tyler Schnoebelen Featured in NY Times

Stanford department alum Tyler Schnoebelen was recently featured in the NY Times Style Section article on the Word of the Year. Read all about it here!

Look Who’s Talking!

Robert Podesva will give a colloquium on “The Social and Linguistic Distribution of Creaky Voice (Vocal Fry)” at Brown University next Wednesday.

Bonnie Krejci will be giving a talk on “Chacobo verb splitting and the vP shell” jointly with Adam Tallman (UTexas) at the 20th Annual Workshop on Structure and Constituency in Languages of the Americas this weekend at the University of Arizona.

Cleo Condoravdi will present ‘Assertions, Declarations and Explicit Performatives’ at the workshop ‘The Action-Product Distinction and Its Importance for Speech Act Theory and Social Ontology’ at UC Berkeley on January 31.

One Reason to Crowdsource Data

Joke courtesy of xkcd.