Clifton in Cognitive Brown Bag Weds. 9/16 at noon

Chuck Clifton (Psychology) will give the first cognitive brown bag talk this semester on Wednesday, September 16, at noon in Tobin 521B. The title and abstract follow.

How readers and listeners use their knowledge of grammar – and how they go beyond it

The realization that our ability to produce and comprehend language requires use of detailed and elaborate knowledge of syntax fueled the cognitive revolution of the 1960s. Over the following 20 years, we learned a great deal about how readers and listeners used this knowledge in real time to interpret sentences. The success of these analyses of how language comprehension was driven by grammatical knowledge led to competing analyses, emphasizing how various sources of extra-grammatical knowledge contribute to language comprehension. In the years since the peak of the debate between these contrasting positions, more nuanced approaches have developed. These approaches extend the analysis of grammar’s contributions to incorporate effects of prosody, semantics, and pragmatics, and recognize that different types of grammatical relations might be processed differently. Other recent approaches have gone beyond grammar to consider the role language statistics might play in comprehension. Currently, my colleagues and I are exploring how language users employ their knowledge of what speakers and writers are likely to intend, and what kinds of errors they are likely to make in producing language, to arrive at interpretations of sentences that violate the grammatical requirements of the language.

In the first part of this talk, I will summarize the changing views of how we comprehend what we read and hear, providing illustrations of theoretical claims and examples of experimental evidence. In the second part of the talk, I will describe some of the work my colleagues and I are currently doing on what we call “acceptable ungrammaticality,” in which readers’ and listeners’ interpretations of language are guided by what they know of how writers and speakers can misuse the grammar of their language.

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