The Cognitive Basis for Encoding and Navigating Linguistic Structure

Daniel Parker

This dissertation is concerned with the cognitive mechanisms that are used to encode and navigate linguistic structure. Successful language understanding requires mechanisms for efficiently encoding and navigating linguistic structure in memory. The timing and accuracy of linguistic dependency formation provides valuable insights into the cognitive basis of these mechanisms. Recent research on linguistic dependency formation has revealed a profile of selective fallibility: some linguistic dependencies are rapidly and accurately implemented, but others are not, giving rise to “linguistic illusions”. This profile is not expected under current models of grammar or language processing. The broad consensus, however, is that the profile of selective fallibility reflects dependency-based differences in memory access strategies, including the use of different retrieval mechanisms and the selective use of cues for different dependencies. In this dissertation, I argue that (i) the grain-size of variability is not dependency-type, and (ii) there is not a homogenous cause for linguistic illusions. Rather, I argue that the variability is a consequence of how the grammar interacts with general-purpose encoding and access mechanisms. To support this argument, I provide three types of evidence. First, I show how to “turn on” illusions for anaphor resolution, a phenomena that has resisted illusions in the past, reflecting a cue combinatorics scheme that prioritizes structural information in memory retrieval. Second, I show how to “turn off” a robust illusion for negative polarity item (NPI) licensing, reflecting access to the internal computations during the encoding and interpretation of emerging semantic/pragmatic representations. Third, I provide computational simulations that derive both the presence and absence of the illusions from within the same memory architecture. These findings lead to a new conception of how we mentally encode and navigate structured linguistic representations.