Collaborative Research: Studying Language Production in the Field: Accessibility Effects on Variation
Juergen Bohnemeyer Principal Investigator
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This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5).<br/><br/>When speakers encode their thoughts into linguistic utterances, they often can choose between several different ways of conveying the same message. For example, English speakers may use an active or a passive. They are more likely to choose a passive over an active if the patient, but not the agent, is human and hence more accessible ("The girl was struck by lightning"). Such accessibility effects are well-established for a small set of (mostly related) languages, and have had a tremendous influence on linguistic and psycholinguistic theory. Yet, the languages previously studied psycholinguistically are unsuited for distinguishing competing accounts of accessibility effects. For example, according to availability accounts, speakers prefer to mention the more accessible referent earlier in the sentence. According to certain alignment accounts, on the other hand, speakers prefer to make the most accessible referent the subject of the sentence. Both accounts correctly predict English passive vs. active choice. To address these questions, this study will look at morphosyntactic variations in a language that is typologically very different from English: Yucatec (Mayan). The studies will exploit properties of Yucatec to distinguish between accessibility accounts where previously studied languages fail to do so. The studies will also contribute to the establishment of an interdisciplinary research program of field-based psycholinguistics. Since most of the world's languages are spoken far away from psycholinguistic laboratories, it is crucial to adapt and apply psycholinguistic methods to the study of variation under field conditions, where participant recruiting is a non-trivial issue and familiarity with the very concept of an "experiment" cannot be assumed. The research will employ two types of production methodologies, recall studies and video description tasks, as well as grammaticality ratings. Production studies are the primary methodology of psycholinguists working on choice in language production, providing quantitative data on what speakers produce. Grammaticality ratings are the primary methodology of theoretical linguists employed in fieldwork. This method will be extended to a quantitative level, making it possible to study gradient preferences in alternations. By using both methods, the relevance and accessibility of the results will be increased for both research communities. In addition to their relevance for psycholinguistic research, the studies will close significant gaps in the scientific record of the grammar of Yucatec, for which close to no quantitative record of syntactic variation exists. This data will help to distinguish between competing analyses of Yucatec syntax, and will contribute to syntactic typology.<br/><br/>The successful completion of the research will have a potentially transformative effect on several disciplines: for psycholinguistics, it will allow theories of production to be tested against a wider set of language data. For field linguistics, it will contribute to the methodological repertoire available for future field work, pushing forward the state-of-the-art in language description. The post-doctoral researcher, graduate research assistants, and undergraduate students will have the experience of participating in and becoming specialists in a newly emerging research paradigm of field-based psycholinguistics. They will be trained in psycholinguistic theory, as well as psycholinguistic and field work methodologies (including state-of-the-art statistical data analysis). The native speaker consultants, who are members of indigenous communities, will receive valuable linguistic training. The sound files from the research will constitute the first large scale documentation of syntactic variation in Mayan. All data will be archived and made freely available, allowing further study of the material. To facilitate similar investigation on other understudied languages, all experimental stimuli and scripts will also be made available.