Yao-Ying Lai and Maria Piñango win JCHAT award

September 15, 2017

Graduate alumna Yao-Ying Lai and Associate Professor María Piñango have received the JCHAT Award (Best Paper) from the Japanese Society for Language Sciences (JSLS) in addition to their paper Comprehending underspecified meaning: Resolving ambiguity by contextual and conceptual search. The award is given to the best paper presented at the JSLS’s annual conference.

The award-winning paper, co-authored with Ashwini Deo of the Ohio State University, investigates a special type of sentence called semantic underspecification. These are sentences that have a syntactic structure supporting multiple possible meanings for the sentence, which are mutually exclusive with one another. For example, consider the following sentence.

  1. The queen began the novel.

This sentence has two possible meanings. Under the agentive interpretation, the queen is an author who wrote the beginning of the novel; perhaps the rest of the novel was written by other authors. In addition, the sentence also has a constitutive reading, under which the queen is one of the characters in the story, who is featured in the beginning of the novel.

In this project, the three authors investigated how individuals choose between the two possible readings, and whether this choice is influenced by contextual factors. They found that in the absence of contextual influences, individuals are equally likely to choose either of the two meanings. However, when presented with contextual information, speakers are less likely to choose the meaning incompatible with the context. On the other hand, whereas some sentences have interpretations that are difficult to see at first glance, speakers obtain these interpretations more easily when contextual information biases them towards these interpretations.

The 19th meeting of the JSLS conference was held from July 1 to July 2, 2017, at Kyoto Women’s University in Kyoto, Japan.

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