Language in Mind

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ABX discrimination task
A test procedure in which subjects hear two different stimuli followed by a third which is identical to one of the first two. The subjects must then decide whether the third stimulus is the same as the first or the second.
The process of updating a mental model to include information that is presupposed by a speaker, as evident by his use of specific presupposition-triggering expressions.
action potential
An electrical pulse that travels down the axon of a neuron to a synapse, resulting in the release of neurotransmitters (signaling molecules).
affective pathway
Sound production (vocalizations) arising from states of arousal, emotion, and motivation. Affective sound production is innate, doesn’t require learning, and is generally inflexible.
Linguistic units that can’t stand on their own but have predictable meanings when attached to a stem morpheme such as own, pink or cat.
A sound that is produced when you combine an oral stop and a fricative together, like the first and last consonants in church or judge.
agglutinative language
A language in which words are formed by joining morphemes together. Syntax is expressed by multiple bound affixes and not by changes in position, form, stress, or tone of the root word. Each affix typically represents a single unit of meaning (such as tense or plural), and affixes do not change form in response to other affixes or different root words.
Two or more similar sounds that are variants of the same phoneme; often identified by brackets; e.g., [t] and [th] represent the two allophones of the phoneme /t/ (as in the words Stan and tan).
alphabetic inventory
A collection of orthographic symbols that map onto individual sounds or phonemes.
Describes a sound whose place of articulation is the alveolar ridge, just behind the teeth.
Loss of the capacity to make sense of music (but not of language).
In regards to forming complex words, a process of comparison in which similarities between the members of pairs or sets of word forms are taken as a basis for the creation of another word form.
A pronoun’s referent or referential match; that is, the expression (usually a proper name or a descriptive noun or noun phrase) that refers to the same person or entity as the pronoun.
anti-nativist view
The view that the ability of humans to learn language is not the result of a genetically programmed “language template,” but is an aspect (or a by-product) of our extensive cognitive abilities, including general abilities of learning and memory.
Any language disruption caused by brain damage.
argument from the poverty of the stimulus
The argument that there is not enough input available to children to allow them to learn certain structures without the help of innate expectations that guide their language development.
argument structures
Syntactic frames that provide information about how many objects or participants are involved in each event, and what kind of objects or participants are involved.
artificial language
A “language” that is constructed to have certain specific properties for the purpose of testing an experimental hypothesis: strings of sounds correspond to “words,” which may or may not have meaning, and whose combination may or may not be constrained by syntactic rules.
aspirated stop
An unvoiced oral stop with a long voice onset time and a characteristic puff of air (aspiration) upon its release; an aspirated stop “pops” when you get too close to a microphone without a pop filter. Aspirated stop sounds are indicated with a superscript: ph, th, and kh.
assembled phonology route
According to the dual route theory, the means by which graphemes are “sounded out” against their corresponding sounds, beginning at the left edge of the word.
The process by which one sound becomes more similar to a nearby sound.
associationist theories
Domain-general theories of learning that emphasize learning that takes place when items become associated in memory through experience.
associative learning
Learning process by which associations between two stimuli are made as ideas and experience reinforce one another.
audience design
The practice of adjusting aspects of one’s language with the goal of communicating effectively with a particular audience or hearer. This adjustment may be conscious or unconscious, and may relate to various aspects of language production, including lexical choice, pronunciation and choice of syntactic structure.
auditory verbal agnosia
“Pure word deafness,” a condition in which people hear speech as meaningless or garbled sound but usually can speak, read, or write without any trouble; their ability to process non-speech sounds, including music, seems to be mostly intact.
autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
A neurological condition that impairs the ability to coordinate attention with another person, or to make inferences about someone else’s state of mind.
auxiliary verbs
Often informally known as “helping verbs,” a category of words that accompany a main verb. Includes was, is, can, should, does, and did.
Extension of a nerve cell (neuron) along which informational “output” travels to another neuron.


back-channel responses
Behavioral cues (e.g., nods, murmurs of agreement or grunts of dissent) produced by a hearer that provide the speaker with information about the hearer’s degree of comprehension.
basic-level categories
The favored midlevel category of words that strike a balance between similarity among members of the category and distinctiveness from members of other categories; e.g., of the words dog, Dalmatian, and animal, dog would fall into the basic-level category.
Sequences of two words (i.e., word pairs).
Describes a sound that is produced by obstructing airflow at the lips.
binding constraints
Structurally based constraints on the possible antecedents of personal pronouns such as she or him and on reflexive pronouns such as himself or themselves.
brain lateralization
The specialization of the brain’s right and left cerebral hemispheres for different functions.
bridging inference
An inference that connects some of the content in a sentence with previous material in the text, or with information encoded in the mental model.
Broca’s aphasia
Aphasia characterized by halting speech and tremendous difficulty in choosing words, but fairly good speech comprehension. Also called motor aphasia or expressive aphasia.
Brodmann areas
Areas of the human cerebral cortex that are distinct from each other anatomically and in cellular composition, as determined by Korbinian Brodmann.


cascaded model of word production
A model in which later stages of word production don’t need to wait until earlier ones have been fully resolved, but can be initiated while earlier stages are still in progress.
Grammatical markers that signal the grammatical role (subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.) of a noun within a given sentence.
case markers
Morphemes that occur within a noun phrase to signal its grammatical function (for example subject, direct object, indirect object). Case markers may occur on nouns, articles, adjectives, or on any or all of these.
categorical perception
A pattern of perception where changes in a stimulus are perceived not as gradual, but as falling into discrete categories. Here, small differences between sounds that fall within a single phoneme category are not perceived as readily as small differences between sounds that belong to different phoneme categories.
cerebral cortex
The outer covering of the brain’s cerebral hemispheres.
cognitive architecture
Fundamental characteristics of the mind’s structure that specify how different cognitive components interact with each other.
cognitive control
Also known as executive function. The goal-directed cognitive processes responsible for directing attention and supervising behavioral responses to stimuli.
cognitive pathway
Controlled, highly malleable sound production that requires extensive auditory learning and practice. Includes human language sounds and some birdsong.
cohort competitors
Words with overlapping onsets (e.g., candle, candy, candid, etc.).
cohort model
A model of word recognition in which multiple cohort competitors become active immediately after the beginning of word is detected, and are gradually winnowed down to a single candidate as additional acoustic information is taken in.
compensation for coarticulation
Phenomenon in which the perception of speech automatically adjusts to take into account the tendency for sounds to be pronounced differently in different phonetic environments; thus the same ambiguous sound may be perceived differently, depending on the adjacent sounds.
complementary distribution
Separation of two allophones into completely different, non-overlapping linguistic environments.
The concept that there are fixed rules for combining units of language in terms of their form that result in fixed meaning relationships between the words that are joined together.
Gluing together two independent words into one unit so that the new unit acts as a single word.
conceptual pact
A tacit “agreement” that evolves over the course of a communicative exchange in which conversational partners settle on a particular linguistic expression to refer to a particular referent.
connectionist framework
A framework for implementing the process by which items become associated in memory, involving interconnected networks of units.
connectionist model
Here this refers to a computational model of the past tense. Based on previously learned associations between verb stems and past-tense forms, the model predicts the probable shape of past-tense forms for new verb stems.
A syntactic category consisting of a word or (more often) a group of words (e.g., noun phrase, prepositional phrase) that clump together and function as a single unit within a sentence.
constraint-based approach
The main competitor to the garden path theory, this approach claims that multiple interpretations of an ambiguous structure are simultaneously evaluated against a broad range of information sources (or constraints) that can affect the parser’s early decisions.
conversational implicature
An aspect of the speaker’s intended meaning that cannot be derived directly from the linguistic code, but must be inferred by the hearer on the basis of expectations about the speaker’s probable communicative goals and behavior.
corpus callosum
A bundle of neural fibers that connects and transfers information between the two hemispheres of the brain.
crossmodal priming task
An experimental task involving both spoken and written modalities; participants typically hear prime words, which are often embedded within full sentences, and they must respond to test words displayed orthographically on a computer screen.
cultural transmission view of language change
The notion that languages change over time to adapt to the human mind, with all the constraints, limitations, and abilities that human minds bring to the task of learning or using language. This view stands in contrast to the nativist view, which holds that the human mind has changed over time because it has become adapted for the requirements of language.


declarative memory
Memory for facts and events (whether real or fictional) that can be spoken of or articulated (“declared”).
Neuronal extensions that receive informational “input” from other neurons.
derivational affixes
Affixes that transform a word of one category into a word of a different category or significantly change the meaning of the word; e.g., the affix -er turning the verb own into the noun owner, or the affix pre- changing the meaning of the word view (whether either view or preview is used as a noun or verb).
developmental dyslexia
A common learning disability with a strong hereditary basis that leads to difficulties in learning to read, although there are no apparent spoken language or other learning problems.
dichotic listening
Experimental task in which subjects listen to spoken words over headphones, with a different word spoken into each ear.
differential case marking
A system of case marking in which case markers appear selectively on some but not all noun phrases. For example, object case marking may be limited to appearing with animate nouns.
diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI)
Neuroimaging technique that tracks how water molecules are diffused in the brain, providing a view of the brain’s “white matter highway” and insight into how information moves between various regions of the brain.
A sound made when the sound for one vowel slides into an adjacent glide in the same syllable, as in the word ouch.
direct route
According to the dual route theory of reading, the means by which a series of orthographic symbols is directly connected with the meaning of a word, without involving sound-symbol correspondences.
distributional evidence
The tendency of words or types of words to appear in certain syntactic contexts, allowing extrapolation of these tendencies to newly learned words.
ditransitive verb
A verb with three participants. In English, the third participant (the indirect object) is usually introduced by a preposition.
ditransitive verbs
Verbs that occur with a direct object and an indirect object (which may be introduced by a preposition).
domain-general perspective
In regard to specific language impairment (SLI), the situation in which the linguistic deficit is only one effect of more general cognitive problems that also affect non-linguistic processes.
domain-general learning
Learning by mechanisms that aren’t limited to learning language.
domain-specific learning
Learning by mechanisms that are strictly devoted to language.
domain-specific perspective
In regard to specific language impairment (SLI), the situation in which the linguistic deficit strikes at mechanisms that are particular to language rather than mechanisms that are shared with other cognitive abilities.
dorsal stream
Theoretical “knowledge stream” of dorsal neural connections (i.e., located in the upper portion of the brain) that process knowledge about “how.”
double dissociation
In reference to language studies, the simultaneous existence of a situation in which language is impaired but other cognitive skills are normal, and a situation in which language is normal despite the impairment of other cognitive functions.
dual route model
A theory of reading which proposes that there are two distinct pathways—the direct route and the assembled phonology route—that link written symbols (graphemes) with meaning.
duality of patterning
The concept that language works at two general levels, with units of sound combining into meaningful units (usually words) and these meaningful units combine into a larger pattern of meaningful syntactic units.
See developmental dyslexia.


elaborative inference
Refers to inferences that are not required in order to make a discourse coherent, but that enrich the meanings of sentences to include material that’s not explicitly encoded on the linguistic content of the sentence.
electroencephalography (EEG)
The use of electrodes placed on the scalp to measure changes in electrical voltage over large numbers of neurons in the brain, thus obtaining information about the timing of responses in the brain.
event-related potential (ERP)
The change in electrical voltage (the potential) over large numbers of brain neurons, measured with EEG and lined up with the presentation of a relevant stimulus (the event).
evolutionary adaptation
A genetically transmitted trait that gives its bearers an advantage—specifically, it helps those with the trait to stay alive long enough to reproduce and/or to have many offspring.
excitatory connections
Connections along which activation is passed from one unit to another, so that the more active a unit becomes, the more it increases the activation of a unit it is linked to.
executive function
See cognitive control.
explanation-based view of discourse processing
Theoretical account of discourse processing that emphasizes the active role of the reader as engaged in goal-driven processes of interpretation. The meaning that a reader constructs us assumed to be informed by her particular goals, and her attempts to construct a coherent representation that will explain why certain entities and actions are mentioned in a text.


Processes that make it easier for word recognition to be completed.
false belief test
A test intended to probe for the ability to recognize that the mental state of another person can be different from one’s own. In the typical false belief test, the subject learns some new information that has the effect of altering a previous belief. The subject is then asked to report on the belief state of another person who has not been privy to the new information.
familiarization phase
A preparation period during which subjects are exposed to stimuli that will serve as the basis for the test phase to follow.
focus constructions
Syntactic structures that have the effect of putting special emphasis or focus on certain elements within the sentence.
forced choice identification task
An experimental task in which subjects are required to categorize stimuli as falling into one of two categories, regardless of the degree of uncertainty they may experience about the identity of a particular stimulus.
framing effect
A phenomenon in which decisions or preferences regarding two identical outcomes are observed to be dramatically different, depending on the wording of the outcomes.
A sound that is produced when your tongue narrows the airflow in a way that produces a turbulent sound; e.g., /s/, /f/, or /z/.
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
Neuroimaging technique that uses magnetic fields to measure hemodynamic changes in the brain while the brain is engaged in a task, on the assumption that such changes are a measure of brain activity.


Ganong effect
An experimental result demonstrating that the identity of a word can affect the perception of individual sounds within that word. When people hear a sound that is acoustically ambiguous between two sounds, their identification of that sound can be shifted in one direction or another depending on which of the possible sounds results in an actual word.
garden path sentences
Sentences that are difficult to understand because they contain a temporary ambiguity. The tendency is for hearers or readers to initially interpret the ambiguous structure incorrectly, and then experience confusion when that initial interpretation turns out to be grammatically incompatible with later material in the sentence.
garden path theory
A theory of parsing that claims that an initial “first-pass” structure is built during comprehension using a restricted amount of grammatical information and guided by certain parsing principles or tendencies, such as the tendency to build the simplest structure possible. Evaluations of plausible meanings or consideration of the context only come into play at a later stage of parsing.
The quality of language that allows us to use whatever we know about language structure to recognize and generate new examples of never-before-encountered sentences.
A sound that is produced when you obstruct the airflow only mildly, allowing most of it to pass through the mouth; e.g., /w/ or /y/.
Written symbols, analogous to phonemes in spoken language; individual graphemes may or may not correspond to individual phonemes (for example, two graphemes are used to represent the sound /k/ in sick).
Greenberg’s linguistic universals
A set of observations about common or universal structural patterns found in a sample of 30 languages by Joseph Greenberg. These observations are still used as the basis of a great deal of inquiry in language typology.


Decreased response to a stimulus after repeated presentations of that stimulus.
The central element of a constituent—for example, the head of a prepositional phrase is the preposition.
head-turn preference paradigm
An experimental framework in which infants’ speech preference or learning is measured by the length of time they turn their heads in the direction of a sound.
heavy-NP shift
A syntactic structure in which a long noun phrase, usually a direct object, is moved toward the end of the sentence instead of in its normal spot adjacent to the verb.
hemodynamic changes
Changes in blood oxygen levels and direction of blood flow.
Shallow but very fast information-processing shortcuts that often lead to incorrect conclusions based on superficial cues.
Top-down (or bottom-up) arrangement of categories. With respect to language, a quality that involves how words group together into constituents, which in turn can group together with other words or constituents to form ever-larger constituents.
Hockett’s design features
A set of characteristics proposed by linguist Charles Hockett to be universally shared by all human languages. Some (but not all) of the features are also found in various animal communication systems. 
A personal communication system initiated by a deaf person to communicate through gestures with others who, like the deaf person, do not know sign language.
Words that are spelled exactly the same but have separate, non-overlapping meanings (and may or may not sound the same).
Two or more words that have separate, non-overlapping meanings but sound exactly the same (even though they may be spelled differently).


iambic stress pattern
Syllable emphasis pattern in which the first syllable is unstressed, as in reTURN.
implicational universals
Crosslinguistic generalizations that are formulated as conditional statements (“If a language has A, then it has B”).
implicit causality
Expectations about the probable cause/effect structure of events denoted by particular verbs.
implicit priming
A psychological phenomenon in which exposing people to certain stimuli increases the likelihood that they’ll exhibit behaviors that are associated with the stimuli. For example, exposing people to words associated with the elderly may trigger behaviors that are stereotypically associated with the elderly, such as walking slowly.
incremental language processing
The processing of language in such a way that hearers begin to generate hypotheses about the meaning of the incoming speech on the basis of partial acoustic information, refining and revising these hypotheses on the fly rather than waiting until there is enough information in the speech stream for the hearer to be certain about what the speaker meant.
The property of synthesizing and building meaning “on the fly” as individual units of speech come in, rather than delaying processing until some amount of linguistic material has accumulated.
Affixes “shoehorned” into the middle of a word (not found in English).
inflectional affixes
Affixes that serve as grammatical reflexes or markers, the presence of which is dictated by the grammatical rules of a language; e.g., in English the affixes -ed and -ing change the tense of a verb. (Note that in English only suffixes are inflectional affixes.)
Processes that result in word recognition becoming more difficult.
inhibitory connections
Connections that lower the activation of connected units, so that the more active a unit becomes, the more it suppresses the activation of a unit it is linked to.
interactive alignment model
A theory of dialogue that minimizes the role of representing a conversational partner’s perspective or mental state. Rather, much of the alignment that emerges between conversational partners is attributed to automatic mechanisms of priming in memory.
interactive mind design
A view of the mind’s structure in which higher, more abstract levels of knowledge (usually what we think of as “more intelligent” levels of knowledge) can directly inform lower-level perception.
interstimulus interval (ISI)
The amount of time between the offset of the prime and the onset of the target.
intransitive verbs
Verbs that take a subject but no object, such as (Joe) sneezes or (Keesha) laughs.
Electrically charged particles; the charge can be positive or negative. Ions that are especially important in neural signaling include sodium (Na+), potassium (K+) calcium (Ca2+), and chloride (Cl).
it-cleft sentence
A type of focus construction in which a single clause has been split into two, typically with the form “It is/was X that/who Y.” The element corresponding to X in this frame is focused. For example, in the sentence It was Sam who left Fred, the focus is on Sam.


joint attention
The awareness between two or more individuals that they are paying attention to the same thing.


See brain lateralization.
An abstract mental representation of a word containing information about its meaning and syntactic category, but not about its sounds.
lexical bias
The statistical tendency for sound-based speech errors to result in actual words rather than non-words.
lexical co-occurrence patterns
Information about which words tend to appear adjacent to each other in a given data set.
lexical decision task
An experimental task in which participants read strings of letters on a screen that might either be actual words (doctor) or nonsense words (domter). Subjects press one button if they think they’ve seen a real word, or a different button to signal that the letters formed a nonsense word. Response times for real words are taken as a general measure of the ease of recognizing those words under specific experimental conditions.
lexical entrainment
The tendency to link a previously used expression with a particular referent.
language typologists
Researchers who study the ways in which languages vary with the aim of describing and explaining crosslinguistic variation.
lexical representation
Information that is committed to long-term memory about the sound and meaning properties of words, and certain constraints on their syntactic combination.
linguistic code
The system of symbols and combinatory rules that are conventionally agreed upon by a community of language users as conveying specific meanings. Often, the linguistic code is not enough to fully convey the speaker’s intended meaning, so that hearers must augment the linguistic code with inferences based on the context.
linguistic competence
Underlying knowledge about linquistic representations and the rules for combining them.
linguistic input
The linguistic forms a child is exposed to.
linguistic intake
The representations a child uses as the basis for learning structure.
linguistic performance
The execution of linguistic competence in speaking or comprehending.
lip rounding
The amount you shape your lips into a circle; for example, your lips are very rounded when you make the sound for /w/.
liquid sound
A sound that is produced when you let air escape over both sides of your tongue; e.g., /l/ or /r/.
logographic writing system
Writing system in which symbols are mapped to units of meaning such as morphemes or words rather than to units of sound.
long-distance dependencies
Relationships between constituents widely separated from each other in a sentence.


magnetoencephalography (MEG)
A technique related to electroencephalography that detects changes in magnetic fields caused by the brain’s electrical activity.
masked priming
A priming task in which the prime word is presented subliminally, that is, too quickly to be consciously recognized.
maxims of cooperative conversation
A set of communicative expectations that are shared by speakers and hearers regarding how speakers typically behave in order to be understood by hearers. The four maxims of Quality, Relation, Quantity and Manner are attributed to the philosopher H. P. Grice.
McGurk effect
An illusion in which a mismatch between auditory information and visual information pertaining to a sound’s articulation results in altered perception of that sound; for example, when people hear an audio recording of a person uttering the syllable ga while viewing a video of the speaker uttering ba, they often perceive the syllable as da.
mean length of utterance (MLU)
The average number of morphemes in a child’s utterances at a given point in the child’s development.
mediated semantic priming
The process by which a prime word (e.g., lion) speeds up responses to a target word (e.g., stripes) not because of a direct connection between lion and stripes, but due to an indirect connection via some other intervening word (e.g., tiger).
memory-driven account of discourse processing
Theoretical approach to discourse processing that emphasizes the role of passive, automatic memory-based processes, in which the integration of incoming discourse information is accomplished by activating existing representations in memory.
mental age
A person’s overall level of cognitive functioning, related to the chronological age of a person with typical development.
mental models
Also known as situation models. Refers to detailed conceptual representation of the real-world situation that a sentence evokes.
minimal pair
A pair of words that have different meanings, but all of the same sounds with the exception of one phoneme; e.g., tan and man.
mixed errors
Speech errors that involve similarities of both sound and meaning.
modular mind design
View of the mind’s structure in which higher levels of processing never directly influence the lower levels; instead, the higher levels integrate information based on lower-level processes, interpret it, and pass these interpretations on to even higher levels.
“Slips of the ear” that result in errors of word segmentation.
The smallest bundles of sound that can be related to some systematic meaning.
motor theory of speech perception
A theory that the perception of speech sounds involves accessing representations of the articulatory gestures that are required to make those speech sounds.
moving window paradigm
A version of the self-paced reading task in which dashes initially replace each alphabetic character in a sentence, and participants press a button to successively “uncover” each portion of the sentence. This method of presentation simulates a fairly natural reading rhythm.
mutual exclusivity bias
A general bias to line up object categories and linguistic labels in a one-to-one correspondence.


An ERP in which a waveform shows a negative voltage peak about 400 ms.
nasal stop
A stop consonant made by lowering the velum in a way that lets the air pass through your nose; e.g., /m/, /n/, and the ŋ sound in words like sing or fang.
nativist view
The view that not only are humans genetically programmed to have a general capacity for language, particular aspects of language ability are also genetically specified.
neighborhood density effects
Experimental results demonstrating that it is more difficult and time-consuming to retrieve a word from memory if the word bears a strong phonological resemblance to many other words in the vocabulary than if resembles only a few other words.
Scientists who study how the physical brain relates to language behavior.
Molecules produced by a neuron and released across a synapse in response to an action potential. Neurotransmitters bind to receptors on a receiving cell (another neuron or a muscle cell), producing a response in the second cell.
noun phrase (NP)
An abstract, higher-order syntactic category that can consist of a single word or of many words, but in which the main syntactic element is a noun, pronoun, or proper name.


object-relative clause
An embedded clause in which the referent that is shared between the main and embedded clauses is linked to the object position of the embedded clause (e.g., I saw the cat that the dog chased).
The material in a syllable that precedes the vowel.
oral stop
A stop consonant made by fully blocking air in the mouth and not allowing it to leak out through the nose; e.g., /p/, /t/, and /k/.
Mapping new words into categories that are too general (e.g., referring to all animals as doggie).


An ERP effect in which a waveform shows a positive voltage peak about 600 ms.
paralinguistic use
The use or manipulation of sounds for emphasis, clarification of meaning, or emotional color but not as an element in the composition of words or sentences.
The process of assigning syntactic structure to the incoming words of a sentence during language comprehension. The structure-building mechanisms and procedures collectively are often referred to as “the parser.”
A syntactic marker, often lacking a specific meaning, that accompanies other syntactic elements.
pedagogical stance
A receptive mindset adopted by the learner in response to cues that signal that an interactive partner is intending to convey some new and relevant information.
perceptual invariance
The phenomenon whereby acoustically different stimuli are perceived as examples of the same phoneme or word.
Production of sound by the vibrating vocal folds.
The smallest unit of sound that changes the meaning of a word; often identified by forward slashes; e.g., /t/ is a phoneme because replacing it in the word tan makes a different word.
phoneme restoration effect
An auditory illusion showing that when a speech sound within a word is replaced by a non-speech sound, people often report hearing both the speech and non-speech sounds.
phonemic awareness
The conscious recognition of phonemes as distinct units, usually only solidly acquired by individuals who are literate in an alphabetic writing system.
phonemic inventory
A list of the different phonemes in a language.
phonological awareness
The ability to consciously analyze and separate strings of sounds into their subparts.
phonotactic constraints
Language-specific constraints that determine how the sounds of a given language may be combined to form words or syllables.
phrase structure rules
Rules that provide a set of instructions about how individual words can be clumped into higher-order categories and how these categories are combined to create well-formed sentences.
polysemous words
Words that can convey a constellation of related, but different meanings, such as the various related meanings of paper, which can, among other meanings, refer to a specific material, or a news outlet.
positron emission tomography (PET)
Neuroimaging technique that uses radioactivity to measure hemo-dynamic changes.
pragmatic meaning
The aspect of meaning that is not available directly from the conventional code, but that must be inferred on the basis of contextual information or information about the speaker’s likely intentions.
predictive inference
A type of elaborative inference that involves making predictions about the likely outcome of a sentence.
Affixes attached at the front end of a word; e.g., un-; pre-.
prepositional phrase (PP)
A syntactic constituent, or higher-order category, that in English, consists of a preposition (e.g., in, under, before) followed by a noun phrase (NP).
An implicit assumption that is signaled by specific linguistic expressions, and whose existence or truth is taken for granted as background information.
principles and parameters theory
A theory claiming that children’s language learning is dramatically constrained with the help of innate syntactic “options” or “parameter switches” that restrict the possible syntactic structures children can infer. Language learning is said to consist largely of checking the input to see which of the constrained set of options apply to the language being learned.
procedural memory
Memory for physical actions and sequences of actions.
In linguistics, a process that can be applied broadly to a large set of lexical items, rather than being restricted to a small set of words; the ability to use known symbols or linguistic units in new combinations to communicate different ideas.
The core meaning of a sentence as expressed by its linguistic content. This core meaning captures the real-world event or the situation that would have to occur in order for that sentence to be judged to be true.
The rhythm, stress, and intonation of a spoken phrase or sentence.
The psychology of language; the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors involved in the perception, production, and acquisition of language.


reading span test
A behavioral test intended to measure an individual’s verbal working memory. The test involves having the individual read a sequence of sentences while holding the last word of each sentence in memory. The number of words successfully remembered corresponds to that individual’s memory span.
Repeated iterations. With respect to language, refers to syntactic embeddings that nest constituents (such as clauses or noun phrases) within other constituents in a potentially infinite manner.
reduced relative clause
A grammatical structure in English involving a relative clause in which certain function words have been omitted (for example the reduced relative clause raced past the barn derives from the full relative clause that was raced past the barn). This structure often leads to ambiguity.
referential communication task
An experimental task in which speakers refer to a specific target object in the context of a number of other objects. The method may be used to probe the behavior of either speakers or hearers. Speakers are faced with the task of choosing a linguistic expression that successfully distinguishes the target object from the other objects that are present. Hearers are required to successfully identity the target object based on the speakers’ choice of linguistic expression. The task may vary the nature of the objects that are present, the linguistic descriptions of the objects, or various aspects of the interactive context.
relative clause
A clause that is embedded within the main clause and shares a referent with the main clause.
repeated-name penalty
The finding that under some circumstances, it takes longer to read a sentence in which a highly salient referent is referred to by a full noun phrase (NP) rather than by a pronoun.
reverse cohesion effect
The finding that under some circumstances, readers retain more information from a text in which the coherence relations between sentences is not made explicit and must be inferred by the reader.
The material in a syllable that includes the vowel and anything that follows.


scalar implicature
A type of conversational implicature that occurs when a speaker chooses a relatively vague expression rather than a stronger, more specific one. In many contexts, the speaker’s choice of linguistic expression leads the hearer to infer that the speaker has used the weaker, vaguer expression because the stronger one would be inaccurate under the circumstances.
self-paced reading task
A behavioral task intended to measure processing difficulty at various points in a sentence. Subjects read through sentences on a computer screen, one word or phrase at a time, pressing a button to advance through the sentence. A program records the amount of time each subject spends reading each segment.
semantic bootstrapping hypothesis
The idea that children come equipped with innate expectations of certain grammatical categories, as well as built-in mappings between key concept types and grammatical categories.
The meaning of a sentence; the system of rules for interpreting the meaning of a sentence based on its structure.
semantic meaning
The aspect of meaning that can be derived directly from the linguistic code, based on the conventionally agreed-upon meanings of the linguistic expressions involved.
semantic priming
The phenomenon by which hearing or reading a word partially activates other words that are related in meaning to that word, making the related words easier to recognize in subsequent encounters.
sensitive period
A window of time during which a specific type of learning (such as learning language) takes place more easily than at any other time.
sentential complement verbs
Verbs that introduce a clause rather than a direct object noun phrase (NP).
serial model of word production
A model in which earlier stages of word production must be fully completed before later stages begin.
shadowing task
An experimental task in which subjects are asked to repeat the words of a speaker’s sentence almost as quickly as the speaker produces them.
situation models
See mental models.
social gating
The enhancement of learning through social interaction.
specific language impairment (SLI)
A disorder in which children fail to develop language normally even though there are no apparent neurological damages or disorders, no general cognitive impairment or delay, no hearing loss, and no abnormal home environment that would explain this failure.
stop consonant
A sound produced when airflow is stopped completely somewhere in the vocal tract.
Stroop test
Behavioral test in which subjects are required to name the color of the font that a word appears in while ignoring the (possibly conflicting) meaning of the word.
subcategorization information
Verb-specific knowledge of the verb’s combinatorial properties.
Refers to the internal regions of the cerebral hemispheres, lying beneath the cerebral cortex.
subject-relative clause
An embedded clause in which the referent that is shared between the main and embedded clauses is linked to the subject position of the embedded clause (e.g., I saw the cat that chased the dog).
subordinate-level categories
More specific categories comprising words that encompass a narrower range of referents than basic-level categories do; e.g., Dalmatian (as opposed to dog).
Affixes attached at the end of a word; e.g., -able; -ed; -ing.
superordinate-level categories
The most general categories of words that encompass a wide range of referents; e.g., animal as opposed to dog (basic-level) or Dalmation (subordinate level).
A measure that is inversely related to the statistical predictability of an event such as a particular continuation of a sentence. Processing difficulty is thought to reflect the degree of surprisal at specific points in the sentence, so that less predictable continuations result in greater processing difficulty.
switch task
A simple word-mapping test in which infants are exposed to a visual representation of an object paired with an auditory stimulus during a habituation phase. During the subsequent test phase, the infants hear either the same object–word pairing, or they hear a new word paired with the familiar object. A difference in looking times between the novel and familiar pairings is taken as evidence that the child had mapped the original auditory stimulus to the familiar object.
syllabic writing system
Writing system in which characters represent different syllables.
Site of connection between the axon terminal of a neuron and the receptors of another neuron or a muscle cell.
Literally, “occurring together” (Greek syndromos). A group of symptoms that collectively characterize a medical or psychological disorder or condition. The presence of a syndrome can lead to the identification of a genetic basis for the condition.
syntactic bootstrapping
Using the syntactic properties of words to identify and narrow in on those aspects of meaning that words are likely to convey.
syntactic priming
A phenomenon in which speakers are more likely to use a particular structure to express an idea if they have recently used the same structure to express a different idea.
The structure of a sentence, specifying how the words are put together, Also refers to a set of rules or constraints for how linguistic elements can be put together.


telegraphic speech
Speech that preserves the correct order of words in sentences, but drops many of the small function words such as the, did, or to.
A feature of vowels distinguishing “tense” vowels such as those in beet and boot from “lax” vowels such as those in bit and put.
test phase
The period in which subjects’ responses to the critical experimental stimuli is tested following a familiarization phase.
thematic relations
Knowledge about verbs that captures information about the events they describe, including how many and what kinds of participants are involved in the events, and the roles the various participants play.
thematic role
Information about the role of various participants in an event described by a verb. For example, in the sentence Patrice sent the letter to Felicia, Patrice assumes the role of “agent,” or instigator of the event, while Felicia assumes the role of “goal,” or the endpoint of the event.
theory of mind (ToM)
The ability to grasp the nature of mental states such as beliefs, knowledge, and intentions, and to recognize that different people may have different mental states under different conditions.
tip-of-the-tongue state
State of mind experienced by speakers when they have partially retrieved a word (usually its lemma, and perhaps some of its sound structure) but feel that retrieval of its full phonological form is elusive.
transitional probability (TP)
The probability that a particular syllable will occur, given the previous occurrence of another particular syllable.
transitive verbs
Verbs that take both a subject and an object, such as (Joe) kicks (the ball) or (Keesha) eats (popcorn).
Sequences of three words.
trochaic stress pattern
Syllable emphasis pattern in which the first syllable is stressed, as in BLACKmail.


unaspirated stop
An unvoiced oral stop without aspiration, produced with a relatively short voice onset time (VOT).
Mapping new words into categories that are too specific; e.g, referring to a carnation, but not a daisy, as flower.
uniqueness point
The point at which there is enough information in the incoming speech stream to allow the hearer to differentiate a single word candidate from its cohort competitors.
universal grammar
A hypothetical set of innate learning biases that guide children’s learning processes and constrain the possible structures of human languages.
unvoiced (voiceless)
Describes a sound that does not involve simultaneous vibration of the vocal folds; in a voiceless stop followed by a vowel, vibration happens only after a lag (say, more than 20 milliseconds).


Describes a sound whose place of articulation is the velum (the soft tissue at the back of the roof of the mouth).
ventral stream
Theoretical “knowledge stream” of ventral neural connections (i.e., located in the lower portion of the brain) that process knowledge about “what.”
verb islands
Hypothetical syntactic frames that are particular to specific verbs, and that specify (1) whether that verb can combine with nouns to its left or right and/or (2) the roles that the co-occurring nouns can play in an event (for example, the do-er, the thing that is acted upon, and so on).
vocal folds
Also known as “vocal cords,” these are paired “flaps” in the larynx that vibrate as air passes over them. The vibrations are shaped into speech sounds by the other structures (tongue, alveolar ridge, velum, etc.) of the vocal tract.
voice onset time (VOT)
The length of time between the point when a stop consonant is released and the point when voicing begins.
Describes a sound that involves vibration of the vocal folds; in an oral stop, the vibration happens just about simultaneously with the release of the articulators (within about 20 milliseconds) as it does for /b/ in the word ban.
vowel backness
The amount your tongue is retracted toward the back of your mouth when you say a vowel.
vowel height
The height of your tongue as you say a vowel. For example, e has more vowel height than a.


Wernicke’s aphasia
Aphasia associated with fluent speech that is well articulated but often nonsensical, and enormous difficulty in understanding language. Also called sensory or receptive aphasia.
wh- island constraints
Syntactic constraints that prevent wh- words (who, what, where) from being related to certain positions within a sentence.
wh- cleft sentence
A type of focus construction in which one clause has been divided into two, with the first clause introduced by a wh- element, as in the sentences What Ravi sold was his old car or Where Joan went was to Finland. In this case, the focused element appears in the second clause (his old car, to Finland).
white matter
Bundles of neural tissue (axons) that act as the brain’s information networks, allowing products (signaling molecules) from one processing area to be shuttled to another area for further processing or packaging.
whole-object bias
The (theoretical) assumption by babies that a new word heard in the context of a salient object refers to the whole thing and not to its parts, color, surface, substance, or the action the object is involved in.
Whorf hypothesis
The hypothesis that the words and structures of a language can affect how the speakers of that language conceptualize or think about the world.
Williams syndrome (WMS)
Genetic syndrome, of particular interest to language researchers, in which language function appears to be relatively preserved despite more serious impairments in other areas of cognitive function.
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