Research Interests

Why are languages so ambiguous?

Human lexica are rife with ambiguity––words with the same form, but different meanings. Sometimes these meanings are entirely unrelated, as is the case for homophony (e.g., the bark of a dog vs. the bark of a tree); sometimes they are closely related, as in polysemy (e.g., the chicken in the yard vs. the chicken on the plate).

Why would a communication system ostensibly evolved for efficient communication allow the reuse of the same signal for multiple meanings? Do homophones offer a benefit to languages and language users, or are they simply a (mostly harmless) “bug” in the system? And is polysemy subject to distinct selection pressures?

Relevant papers and projects:

Ambiguity in the mental lexicon

The prevalence of lexical ambiguity also raises the question of how human minds process and represent the meanings of ambiguous words.

Traditionally, words and their meanings as conceived as discrete entries in a mental dictionary. But meaning is often dynamically modulated in different contexts. We’ve been exploring an alternative account, in which word meanings are viewed as attractors in a continuous state-space—and then asking whether there is evidence for category boundaries atop this continuous space.

Relevant papers and projects:

Pragmatic inference

People often speak indirectly. For example, the sentence “My car isn’t starting” could be intended not only as a statement of fact, but also as a request for a ride. Similarly, the sentence “Can you open that window?” can function as a request to open the window, a question about the hearer’s ability to do so, or both.

How do comprehenders determine whether a speaker is making a request? Specifically: which linguistic and non-linguistic cues to an utterance’s meaning do comprehenders exploit to enrich the meaning of an under-specified utterance like “My car isn’t starting”?

Relevant papers and projects:

  • Trott, S., & Bergen, B. (2020). When do comprehenders mentalize for pragmatic inference? Discourse Processes. [Link to preprint][Data and code for analysis]
  • Trott, S., Reed, S., Ferreira, V., & Bergen, B. (2019) Prosodic cues signal the intent of potential indirect requests. Proceedings of the 41st Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. [Link] [Data and code for analysis]
  • Trott, S., & Bergen, B. (2018). Individual Differences in Mentalizing Capacity Predict Indirect Request Comprehension. Discourse Processes. [Link] [Link to experimental materials]
  • Trott, S., & Bergen, B. (2017, October). A theoretical model of indirect request comprehension. In 2017 AAAI Fall Symposium Series. [Link]