Introducing: The lexical restrictions project

Exceptions Rule! Lexical Restrictions on Grammatical Structure is an NWO Vidi project led by Dr Eva van Lier and based at the ACLC (Amsterdam Center for Language and Communication), University of Amsterdam.

Project description

In linguistic typology, human communication is regarded as a key factor shaping the diversity of language structures world-wide. Yet, many typologists do not support their explanations with data from actual language processing. On the other hand, psycholinguists have looked at only a tiny proportion of all human languages, relying on an (implicit) assumption of linguistic universality. This study connects the fields of linguistic typology and psycholinguistics, focusing on alternating verbs. These are verbs whose arguments can be coded in more than one way, requiring speakers to choose between grammatical constructions.

According to usage-based linguistic theory, such verb-argument constructions are not formed by abstract, general rules operating on the entire verbal lexicon, but rather emerge from speakers’ experience with specific verbs in communicative context. In typology, however, verb-specific grammatical structures have mostly been treated as exceptions: until recently, whole languages were classified with a single value of a particular structural variable, e.g. as having a nominative-accusative case system. Yet, psycholinguistic priming experiments show that speakers access and use verb-specific grammatical knowledge in language processing.

This project combines typological and psycholinguistic methods. First, we investigate cross-linguistic diversity in the grammatical behavior of alternating verbs, using spoken language corpora. Second, together with language specialists, we carry out experimental case studies on Kamang (Indonesia) and Chechen (Russia). These two languages have argument-coding properties that are almost non-existent in European languages.

This project sheds light on the psychological reality, nature, and role of verb-specific grammatical knowledge, beyond the very few languages and constructions that have been studied experimentally to date. Thus, it shows how language processing and linguistic diversity are connected in verb-argument construction alternations world-wide.