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Discourse Contrast and Interactivity in Language Comprehension

Daniel Grodner

Tuesday, January 16, 2007, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

University of Rochester, Department of Brain and Cognitive Science

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Multiple types of information must be rapidly coordinated to support real time language comprehension. In order to explain the efficiency of this process, investigators often posit limits on the types and quantities of information to which processing subsystems have access (e.g., Fodor, 1983). I will present two lines of inquiry addressing processing limits across levels of representation. Specifically, this work explores a dependency between linguistic labels and the referential environment. If two objects of the same type are copresent in the discourse (e.g., two apples) and a speaker wishes to single one out, a modified label is required (e.g., "The apple with the stem"). This dependency is bidirectional; upon encountering certain modified labels, perceivers infer the existence of a contextual contrast --another entity of the same type that differs along the dimension indicated by the modifier (e.g., an apple without a stem).The first line compares restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers. Restrictive modifiers induce the expectation for a contrast whereas non-restrictive modifiers do not. I demonstrate that restrictive modifiers are more difficult to process in a null context, but non-restrictive modifiers are more difficult to process in a supportive context. The former finding indicates that adding a contrastive referent to the discourse model is costly. The latter finding indicates that discourse-based referential information can guide syntactic processing, contra the modularity hypothesis (Fodor, 1983).The second line examines the mechanism that gives rise to contrastive inferences. I will argue that the projection of contrast derives from a rapid inference based on Gricean communicative conventions, and present eye-tracking evidence that perceivers consider the reliability of the speaker when fixing reference for a modified label. This has implications for whether perceivers engage in Gricean reasoning on-line (cf. Sperber & Wilson, 1985) or compute contrast as a reflex of more low-level information (cf. Levinson, 2000).

Daniel Grodner