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<p>A central question in the study of language is whether a given phenomenon can be explained in terms of domain-general aspects of cognition, or whether it requires reference to specific linguistic knowledge. Theorizing about the latter can play a number of roles in the process of psycholinguistic research. This talk offers some reflections about the interplay of theoretical and experimental approaches in studying linguistic meaning, focusing on experimental work on presuppositions and advocating an integrated perspective. Presuppositions, a sub-type of meaning consisting of backgrounded content that is typically taken for granted, offer an interesting case study. On the one hand, many of their aspects lend themselves to domain-general explanations based on fundamental aspects of human communication. On the other hand, they exhibit highly complex interactions with the linguistic contexts and structures they appear in, in particular in their characteristic ‘projection’ behavior (reflected in surviving embedding under various entailment-canceling operators). A core aspect of the issues at stake concerns the respective roles of linear order and more abstract linguistic representations involving hierarchical structures.</p> <p>One (perhaps rather obvious) role for linguistic theory in experimental work is to provide hypotheses that can be tested with psycholinguistic data. For illustration, I’ll briefly review earlier work (Schwarz & Tiemann 2016) on processing costs associated with resolving presupposition projection in the linguistic context, which certain theories tie to varying complexity in the structural representations. While the results align with the theoretical predictions, alternative explanations that don’t rely on specifically linguistic representations may exist, thus illustrating that data being compatible with a theoretical hypothesis need not always settle the more general issues at stake.</p> <p>A second dimension of projection phenomena is that they exhibit asymmetries, relating to whether material supporting a presuppositional expression linearly precedes or follows it. The nature and source of these asymmetries remains contested. One view is that they result from superficial aspects of language use unfolding in time; alternatively, they could be directly encoded at the level of linguistic representations governing the integration of linguistic and contextual information. While influential proposals in the recent theoretical literature on projection directly allude to the role of the time-course associated with comprehending language `from left to right', relatively little remains known about the real-time cognitive processes involved in comprehending presupposition projection. I present experimental findings (Mandelkern et al. 2019) on projection from conjunction arguing that the observed linear order asymmetries need to be encoded in the linguistic representation proper, rather than just resulting from linear order and the temporal unfolding of linguistic material in comprehension. This conclusion constitutes a case where preferring the view that the relevant interpretive properties are linguistically encoded over other, more domain-general (and conceptually appealing) approaches is forced upon us by the experimental data.</p> <p>A final illustration of the interplay of linguistic theorizing and psycholinguistic data concerns cases where complexity in the data warrants new theoretical refinements, as alternative domain-general explanations are hard to come by. Two cases in point are the projection of presuppositions from quantifiers, and the apparent variation in how presupposition triggers contribute to semantic composition at the literal, truth-conditional level. For both of these, experimental data has supported initial theoretical hypotheses to some extent, but overall has yielded more than theoreticians would have bargained for, as the patterns of observed variation across expressions go beyond what current theoretical perspectives can explain.</p> <p>Taken together, I take these various case studies to illustrate that the interplay of theoretical and experimental approaches is genuinely a two-way street, with progress and challenges on either side driving new approaches and developments on the other.</p>
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