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Memory and Locality in Natural Language

Date and Time: 
Thursday, April 5, 2018. 03:00 PM - 04:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Building 460, Room 126
Workshop: 
Cognition and Language Workshop
Meeting Description: 

I explore the hypothesis that the universal properties of human languages can be explained in terms of efficient communication given fixed human information processing constraints. First, I show corpus evidence from 54 languages that word order in grammar and usage is shaped by working memory constraints in the form of dependency locality: a pressure for syntactically linked words to be close to one another in linear order. Next, I develop a new theory of human language processing cost, based on rational inference in a noisy channel, that unifies surprisal and memory effects and goes beyond dependency locality to a new principle of information locality: that words that predict each other should be close. I show corpus evidence for information locality. Finally, I show that the new processing model resolves a long-standing paradox in the psycholinguistic literature, structural forgetting, where the effects of memory on language processing appear to be language-dependent.

Richard Futrell is a postdoc in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.

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