An experimental approach to linguistic representation

Behavioral and Brain Sciences 40 (2017)
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Abstract

Within the cognitive sciences, most researchers assume that it is the job of linguists to investigate how language is represented, and that they do so largely by building theories based on explicit judgments about patterns of acceptability – whereas it is the task of psychologists to determine how language is processed, and that in doing so, they do not typically question the linguists' representational assumptions. We challenge this division of labor by arguing that structural priming provides an implicit method of investigating linguistic representations that should end the current reliance on acceptability judgments. Moreover, structural priming has now reached sufficient methodological maturity to provide substantial evidence about such representations. We argue that evidence from speakers' tendency to repeat their own and others' structural choices supports a linguistic architecture involving a single shallow level of syntax connected to a semantic level containing information about quantification, thematic relations, and information structure, as well as to a phonological level. Many of the linguistic distinctions often used to support complex syntactic structure are instead captured by semantics; however, the syntactic level includes some specification of “missing” elements that are not realized at the phonological level. We also show that structural priming provides evidence about the consistency of representations across languages and about language development. In sum, we propose that structural priming provides a new basis for understanding the nature of language.

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