The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

BCS Cog Lunch 11/2 - Hal Tily

Speaker: Hal Tily
Title: Linguistic representations are probabilistic: evidence from production choices, articulation, visual attention and reading times
Time: Tues 11/2, 12pm
Location: 46-3189

Comprehenders are sensitive to the probability of linguistic material: they read more predictable words faster, resolve ambiguities to a more likely outcome, and complete sentences in ways similar to actual speakers’ productions. However, this does not necessarily mean that our knowledge of language includes knowledge about the probability of linguistic material, since we could simply be sensitive to the probability of events in the world (plausibility), which is typically confounded with the probability of the words used to describe them. Luckily, languages sometimes give multiple ways of expressing a single event which may differ in their probability, such as the English ditransitive: “give the princess the necklace” means the same thing as “give the necklace to the princess”. I present work showing that these constructions are indeed used by speakers with different probabilities depending on the linguistic environment. Those probabilities even influence the realization of the utterance in speech: using the more probable construction in a given situation leads to shorter word durations and improved fluency. Using eyetracking, we next show that comprehenders are sensitive to linguistic probabilities and use them to anticipate the order that referents will be mentioned. Finally, in online self paced reading, I show that low probability construction choices lead to difficulty in comprehension. These results suggest that linguistic forms which do not differ in meaning nevertheless have associated probabilistic usage patterns which are fundamental to both production and comprehension.