Experimental Linguistics

Quantitative methods became common in linguists over the last decade or two. One focus of Professor of Linguistics Wayne Cowart’s work is the intricate, intuitive, untutored sense of sentence structure that guides the speech of children long before they come to school. This intuitive capacity to judge how 'good' a sentence form is persists through adulthood, is largely unaffected by schooling, and appears to reflect fundamental features of the human cognitive system of language. Recently, Dr. Cowart has been aided by Mia Harrow-Martelliti, a student intern from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics doing a directed study fulfilling some of her high school requirements. She sought out the USM program because it is the only linguistics program in Maine. She has helped develop a new method for automating the process of building the complex and intricately differentiated sets of questionnaires that are needed in the work of Prof. Cowart and his colleagues. It is not uncommon, for example, for a single study using 32 respondents to require 32 unique questionnaires, differing in the content and ordering of their items. The process of building these sets of questionnaires, and then accurately decoding the results according to the questionnaire the respondent used has been tedious and daunting. Mia's contribution has dramatically speeded up the process of building these questionnaires. During her "J term" visit to Portland in January she also contributed to a new line of investigation aimed at comparing the structural intuitions of native speakers of Mandarin Chinese and Polish with those of English speakers. The primary focus of this work is on simple 'coordinate' sentences, such as "Mary and Bill bought the company". Because the grammatical differences among these languages seem to be dramatic, it is an interesting and potentially consequential question whether speakers of these languages exhibit similar sensitivities to various manipulations of the internal structure of these sentences.