Archive for Psycholinguistics


Lately I've been seeing greater use of this kind of sentence structure:  "He is an awesome hero — not".  And (mis)negation has always been a favorite topic for discussion on Language Log.  Consequently, I'm calling to your attention two recent publications on "not".

"'Not' in the Brain and Behavior." Cas W. Coopmans, Anna Mai, Andrea E. Martin, PLOS Biology 22, no. 5 (May 31, 2024): e3002656.

Negation is key for cognition but has no physical basis, raising questions about its neural origins. A new study in PLOS Biology on the negation of scalar adjectives shows that negation acts in part by altering the response to the adjective it negates.

Language fundamentally abstracts from what is observable in the environment, and it does so often in ways that are difficult to see without careful analysis. Consider a child annoying their sibling by holding their finger very close to the sibling’s arm. If asked what they were doing, the child would likely say, “I’m not touching them.” Here, the distinction between the physical environment and the abstraction of negation is thrown into relief. Although “not touching” is consistent with the situation, “not touching” is not literally what one observes because an absence is definitionally something that is not there. The sibling’s annoyance speaks to the actual situation: A finger is very close to their arm. This kind of scenario illustrates how natural language negation is truly a product of the human brain, abstracting away from physical conditions in the world.

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Tone vs. syllable in Cantonese

Andus Wing-Kuen Wong et al., "Tonal and syllabic encoding in overt Cantonese Chinese speech production: An ERP study", PLOS ONE 2023:

Abstract: This study was conducted to investigate how syllables and lexical tones are processed in Cantonese speech production using the picture-word interference task with concurrent recording of event-related brain potentials (ERPs). Cantonese-speaking participants were asked to name aloud individually presented pictures and ignore an accompanying auditory word distractor. The target and distractor either shared the same word-initial syllable with the same tone (Tonal-Syllable related), the same word-initial syllable without the same tone (Atonal-Syllable related), the same tone only (Tone alone related), or were phonologically unrelated. Participants’ naming responses were faster, relative to an unrelated control, when the target and distractor shared the same tonal- or atonal-syllable but null effect was found in the Tone alone related condition. The mean ERP amplitudes (per each 100-ms time window) were subjected to stimulus-locked (i.e., time-locked to stimulus onset) and response-locked (i.e., time-locked to response onset) analyses. Significant differences between related and unrelated ERP waves were similarly observed in both Tonal-Syllable related and Atonal-Syllable related conditions in the time window of 400–500 ms post-stimulus. However, distinct ERP effects were observed in these two phonological conditions within the 500-ms pre-response period. In addition, null effects were found in the Tone alone related condition in both stimulus-locked and response-locked analyses. These results suggest that in Cantonese spoken word production, the atonal syllable of the target is retrieved first and then associated with the target lexical tone, consistent with the view that tone has an important role to play at a late stage of phonological encoding in tonal language production.

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Language that exercises the brain; poetry and gradations of understanding

If you want to give your brain fortifying nutrition, what kind of language should you feed it?

"Complex, unfamiliar sentences make the brain’s language network work harder"

A new study finds that language regions in the left hemisphere light up when reading uncommon sentences, while straightforward sentences elicit little response.

Anne Trafton | MIT News (January 3, 2024)

"Complex, Unfamiliar Sentences Make the Brain's Language Network Work Harder." Science Daily, January 3, 2024. .

Discussing "Driving and Suppressing the Human Language Network Using Large Language Models." Tuckute, Greta et al. Nature Human Behaviour (January 3, 2024).

Fair enough, maybe, but what if you lose your auditor / lector altogether?  It seems to me that the type of brain-food sentences cited in this study border on incomprehensibility.

With help from an artificial language network, MIT neuroscientists have discovered what kind of sentences are most likely to fire up the brain’s key language processing centers.

The new study reveals that sentences that are more complex, either because of unusual grammar or unexpected meaning, generate stronger responses in these language processing centers. Sentences that are very straightforward barely engage these regions, and nonsensical sequences of words don’t do much for them either.

For example, the researchers found this brain network was most active when reading unusual sentences such as “Buy sell signals remains a particular,” taken from a publicly available language dataset called C4. However, it went quiet when reading something very straightforward, such as “We were sitting on the couch.”

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No depth-charge channel is too noisy to be confused by

Yuhan Zhang, Rachel Ryskin & Edward Gibson, "A noisy-channel approach to depth-charge illusions." Cognition, March 2023:

The “depth-charge” sentence, No head injury is too trivial to be ignored, is often interpreted as “no matter how trivial head injuries are, we should not ignore them” while the literal meaning is the opposite – “we should ignore them”. Four decades of research have failed to resolve the source of this entrenched semantic illusion. Here we adopt the noisy-channel framework for language comprehension to provide a potential explanation. We hypothesize that depth-charge sentences result from inferences whereby comprehenders derive the interpretation by weighing the plausibility of possible readings of the depth-charge sentences against the likelihood of plausible sentences being produced with errors. In four experiments, we find that (1) the more plausible the intended meaning of the depth-charge sentence is, the more likely the sentence is to be misinterpreted; and (2) the higher the likelihood of our hypothesized noise operations, the more likely depth-charge sentences are to be misinterpreted. These results suggest that misinterpretation is affected by both world knowledge and the distance between the depth-charge sentence and a plausible alternative, which is consistent with the noisy-channel framework.

Yuhan Zhang discusses the paper in a thread on Twitter.

Speaking of depth, I'm definitely out of mine when it comes to noisy-channel frameworks. But it isn't the case that I'm not so ignorant as to fail to recognize that this paper is not too unimportant for Language Log not to pay no attention to it.

(Hey, ChatGPT — betcha can't make sense out of that!)

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Theory of Mind (ToM) skills

Language Is Not Enough for Brains in Conversation

Zoom Webinar:

4 October, 2:15 p.m. SEMINAR – WEB EVENT

Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS), Uppsala

Julia Uddén, Pro Futura Scientia Fellow, SCAS, and the Departments of Linguistics and Psychology, Stockholm University.
Affiliated Researcher, Department of Neurobiology of Language, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen

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A Remembrance of Anne Cutler

The following is a guest post by Martin Ho Kwan Ip,  who is now a postdoc at Penn. See "Anne Cutler 1945-2022", 6/8/2022, for some background and links.

I am one of Anne's most recent students (her 44th student from the MARCS Institute in Australia). I met Anne for the first time in 2014 when she was invited to give a talk at the University of Queensland (we had been corresponding by email but had never met until then). Although I was fascinated with languages, I was still an undergraduate student in psychology and foreign languages; I knew next to nothing about speech and was totally unfamiliar with many of the concepts and jargon in linguistics. But her talk was like a story and it was so memorable – she showed us some of the different mental challenges associated with listening (like when she used speech waveforms to show us how gaps between words are not as clear as we think), why different languages are needed to better understand how the mind works when we listen, how infants’ early segmentation abilities influence later vocabulary growth – this was the first language-related talk I had attended and I was just so, so intrigued. 

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Green needle vs. brainstorm

Remember "Yanny vs. Laurel", the viral acoustic sensation (28.2M views) of mid-May, 2018?  It was covered extensively on Language Log (see the items under "Selected readings" below).  Now we have another supposedly ambiguous recording that has gone viral (5.3M views [posted 7/3/21]):

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The precursors of the Scalia/Garner canons (updated)

Previously: Robocalls, legal interpretation, and Bryan Garner

All three canons that are in play in Facebook v. Duguid (the Last Antecedent, Series Qualifier, and Nearest Reasonable Referent Canons) have precursors in U.S. and English caselaw. That’s no surprise, given that all 57 canons in Reading Law are presented as being  well established in the law. But as my last post noted, each canon departs from the previous caselaw in one respect or another. And in the case of the Series Qualifier Canon, the departure is quite substantial.

To lay the groundwork necessary in order to describe those departures, this post will summarize the prior law from which the three canons deviate.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep and bear arms” (Part 2)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.


This post will complete my analysis of the Second Amendment—for now. So far, I’ve focused almost entirely on the Second Amendment’s specification of the right that it protected—the right of the people, to keep and bear Arms—and have said little or nothing about well regulated or militia. That doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about those expressions, it just means that I’ll defer that discussion until sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, here in the present, this post will try to answer the question that I raised in the last post: whether the Supreme Court was right in saying that the fact that bear arms appears in the phrase keep and bear arms means that bear arms couldn’t have been used in its idiomatic military sense:

[If bear arms were given its idiomatic meaning,] the phrase “keep and bear arms” would be incoherent. The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.” Grotesque.

It’s true that interpreting bear arms as having been used idiomatically would mean that arms conveys two different meanings (a phenomenon known as copredication). But as explained in my last post, that doesn’t rule out such an interpretation. Now, in this post, I’ll argue that interpreting bear arms in that way is more than just a theoretical possibility. I’ll discuss evidence that makes it reasonable to think keep and bear arms was intended to convey such a meaning, and that such an interpretation would have been more likely than the alternative.

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Corpora and the Second Amendment: “keep and bear arms” (part 1) (updated)

An introduction and guide to my series of posts “Corpora and the Second Amendment” is available here. The corpus data that is discussed can be downloaded here. That link will take you to a shared folder in Dropbox. Important: Use the "Download" button at the top right of the screen.


This was supposed to be the final entry in my series of posts on the Second Amendment, but I’ve decided to split the discussion into two parts.

In my last post, I concluded that as used in the Second Amendment, bear arms was most likely understood to mean ‘serve in the militia.’ The question that I’ll address here and in my next post is whether that conclusion is changed by the fact that the Second Amendment protects not simply “the right of the people to bear arms” but “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

The corpus data on keep and bear arms is of no help in answering that question, because all the uses of the phrase in the data are either from the Second Amendment or from drafts of proposals for what became the Second Amendment. Therefore, I won’t deal with the corpus data at all in this post, and I’ll deal with only a relative handful of concordance lines in the next one (though those lines will play an important role in the analysis).

Taken together, these two posts will provide an extended rebuttal of the portion of Heller (consisting of only four sentences) that raised the question that these posts will address. Those four sentences were part of the court’s argument that bear arms as used in the Second Amendment couldn’t possibly have been understood in its idiomatic military sense:

[If bear arms were given its idiomatic meaning,] the phrase “keep and bear arms” would be incoherent. The word “Arms” would have two different meanings at once: “weapons” (as the object of “keep”) and (as the object of “bear”) one-half of an idiom. It would be rather like saying “He filled and kicked the bucket” to mean “He filled the bucket and died.” Grotesque.

When I first read Heller, this struck me as a pretty strong argument. But I’ve rethought the issue since then, and have come to think that the argument is seriously flawed. At this point, although I don’t dismiss the argument altogether, I don’t think it rules out interpreting bear arms in the Second Amendment to mean ‘serve in the militia.’

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Rating and judging non-native English

From Martijn Wieling:

We have created a questionnaire about rating English accents and judging English audio samples from non-native speakers of English. We'd like to get as many native English speakers as possible to provide their judgements about the audio samples and I was hoping you'd be willing to link the questionnaire.

Note that the survey link randomly redirects people  to one of two questionnaires. One is about deciding which English word you hear (pronounced by a Dutch speaker), the other about rating the nativelikeness of English accents, similar to the questionnaire that you recruited subjects for in 2012 ("Rating American English Accents").

So all you native English speakers, please volunteer — the task just takes a couple of minutes:


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Yanny vs. Laurel, pt. 2

Just when you thought you'd never have to worry about this vexing acoustic phenomenon again, "Yanny vs. Laurel: an analysis by Benjamin Munson" (5/16/18) and the comments thereto having carried out such a probing, exhaustive investigation, a 3:44 video (5/15/18) attempts surface to explain it in a way that has not yet been mentioned:

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Yanny vs. Laurel: an analysis by Benjamin Munson

A peculiar audio clip has turned into a viral sensation, the acoustic equivalent of "the dress" — which, you'll recall, was either white and gold or blue and black, depending on your point of view. This time around, the dividing line is between "Yanny" and "Laurel."

The Yanny vs. Laurel perceptual puzzle has been fiercely debated (see coverage in the New York Times, the AtlanticVox, and CNET, for starters). Various linguists have chimed in on social media (notably, Suzy J. Styles and Rory Turnbull on Twitter). On Facebook, the University of Minnesota's Benjamin Munson shared a cogent analysis that he provided to an inquiring reporter, and he has graciously agreed to have an expanded version of his explainer published here as a guest post.

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