The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LingLunch 10/13: Meg Gotowski (MIT) and Kristen Syrett (Rutgers)

Speakers: Meg Gotowski (MIT) & Kristen Syrett (Rutgers)

Time: Thursday 10/13, 12:30-1:50pm

Zoom link: https://mit.zoom.us/j/96548700087

In-person location: 32-D461

Title: It is daxy to learn adjectives, and learning adjectives is daxy for everyone: Syntactic frames support the acquisition of adjective meaning.

Abstract: How do children learn the meaning of adjectives like fun or delicious? These are adjectives that are context-dependent and speaker-dependent, encoding both gradability and subjectivity. For this reason, subjective such as these adjectives pose a challenge for word learning, given that they do not have a fixed referent. An influential theory in the word learning literature is syntactic bootstrapping, which claims that learners recruit the syntactic environment in which a word is found in order to deduce its meaning (Landau & Gleitman 1985). While syntactic bootstrapping has been examined extensively in regard to verb learning (Gleitman 1990; Fisher 2002; Gleitman et al. 2005), adjectives have received considerably less attention—and previous studies have also conflated syntactic and semantic information (such as animacy, Becker et al. 2012). In this research, we focus on subjective adjectives as a case study for analyzing the influence of the syntax alone within the adjectival domain. We discuss the results of a word learning experiment modeled after the Human Simulation Paradigm (Gillette et al. 1999), during which participants were presented with a novel adjective in a set of syntactic frames. Each set of frames crucially reflected the unique distributional signature of five different subclasses of subjective adjectives (Bylinina 2014). Participants demonstrated a sensitivity to these frames, and reliably recruited the syntax in order to narrow down the potential meanings for the novel adjectives, offering responses consistent with the set of frames provided—while becoming increasingly confident in their responses after encountering the adjective across multiple frames.