The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Invited talk 3/2 - Lyn Tieu (Western Sydney)

Speaker: Lyn Tieu (Western Sydney)
Title: Semantic theory and meaning acquisition
Date and time: Friday, March 2nd, 3:30-5:00pm
Location: 32-D461

The overarching goal of my research program is to understand the nature of language by drawing on different empirical sources of data in a way that is informed by linguistic theory. In this talk, I will present three examples of recent work that highlight the interplay between theoretical issues in semantics and empirical facts about meaning acquisition. I will begin with the acquisition of the polarity-sensitive item ‘any’ in English (Tieu 2013). In this case, corpus and experimental data from child language suggest a potential learnability problem. A possible solution can be found in current linguistic theory; specifically, the cross-linguistic typology of polarity-sensitive items (Chierchia 2013) may provide a restricted hypothesis space for the learner to consider. In the second example, I discuss a series of recent developmental studies of various kinds of implicatures (Tieu et al. 2016, Tieu et al. 2017, and others). In this case, the child data suggest the presence of a developmental stage where children have mastered some implicatures but not others. Crucially, here too the relevant distinction turns out to quite naturally align with one made in current linguistic theories, specifically about scalar alternatives (Katzir 2007; Fox & Katzir 2011). In the final example, I discuss ongoing work that experimentally investigates the semantic contribution of co-speech gestures (gestures that accompany speech) and pro-speech gestures (gestures that replace spoken words) (Tieu et al. 2017, 2018, ongoing). In this case, experimental work with adults suggests people can very rapidly learn new meanings and project presuppositions from a single exposure to novel iconic gestures that they have never seen before, suggesting productive rules for triggering presuppositions.