difference in form without difference in meaning

T. Florian Jaeger tiflo at csli.stanford.edu
Sat Aug 6 17:47:47 UTC 2011

Hi John,

I find it useful to follow Herb Clark's distinction between primary and
collateral meaning, where collateral meaning is/includes information about
the state of the processing system. If collateral meaning is included under
what Fritz meant by meaning differences then -given everything that is known
about language processing- I very much doubt that there is
meaning-equivalence. I guess collateral meaning would include all the
effects John's mentioning (e.g. effects of accessibility), although it is,
of course, theoretically possible that these effects are due to meaning
differences in a more narrow sense of the word. If collateral meaning
differences are not included in the definition of "meaning equivalent" then
probably most constructions that I suspect the majority of linguists would
consider meaning-different probably are not meaning-different (in the sense
that I outlined in previous email).

I also wanted to reply to John's comment about different speakers assuming
different meaning differences. I guess I disagree somewhat. I think it's
most productive to think about meaning as something that can be
*successfully transferred* between interlocutors (unless you want to let in
the full force of the qualia problem ;)). When we talk about
meaning-equivalence (or lack thereof) I think it's important to keep in mind
that it isn't sufficient if *one* person think that two forms have different
meanings. As a matter of fact, it's not even sufficient to show that *all*
people think there is a meaning difference. What we would need to show is
that a random sample of native speakers *sufficiently agrees on what the
meaning difference is* (I don't mean that they have to be able to explicitly
name the difference, but it should be possible to indirectly assess their
implicit believes about the meaning differences'; by "sufficiently" I mean
that it is not necessary for people to completely share the same believes
about the meaning of a form, but the information transferred by using a
given form, and thereby its decoded meaning, will depend on the amount of
agreement between the speaker and her audience). Only then does it make
sense to me to claim that two forms "have a different meaning". The other
thing that follows from this (information theoretically motivated) view on
meaning-equivalence is that meaning-equivalence is only defined with regard
to a group of speakers . For example, it could be that in certain
subcommunities of English (defined by any of socio-economic class,
geography, friendship, shared profession, etc.) two forms have a
sufficiently consistently agreed upon different meaning. In that case, it
also makes sense to say that these forms are meaning different *with regard
to that community*.

Finally, I think that we should not forget about methodological
issues. Several replies to Fritz's question assert that there are meaning
differences between two structures. I'd be really curious to see the studies
that support these claims. I mean: an assessment of naive participants in an
unbiased way that results in an at least quantitative differences in the
proportion of participants who judge form A to have a different meaning as
form B. As Tom Wasow pointed out in an off-list comment, such studies
require a definition of WHAT meaning difference is hypothesized. And I
haven't really seen many studies of this type (if any besides the one by
Rafe Kinsey I mentioned in my previous email). I think it is very dangerous
to *only* rely on ones own intuition when assessing meaning differences
between forms (although this method is probably the inevitable starting
point for any research on meaning differences).

On a  related note, asking people to describe the meaning difference between
two forms (even asking them whether two forms mean the same) is a method to
be used with caution since it creates a direct contrast (compare the tasks
of comparing two shades of red when asked "do these differ?" vs. seeing them
separately and being asked "is this red"). I think it's ok to use the
methods (better than not using any method at all) but without finding a
meaning component that people agree on for the two forms, I'd not be
convinced that it makes sense to say that the two forms differ in meaning.
More sophisticated methods to uncover meaning differences have been
developed in other fields (consider for example, the use of eye-tracking as
an implicit measure of meaning and inferential processes triggered by a word
in work in experimental pragmatics by Jesse Snedeker; Mike Tanenhaus; Judith
Degen; etc.; and work on first language acquisition where meaning
differences cannot be accessed explicitly anyway, cf. preferential looking
paradigm). If there's interest in some pointers to this literature, perhaps
you can write to Judith Degen (cc-ed), who could point the list to some


PS: FWIW, many functionalist theories of meaning differences (e.g. Fox and
Thompson, 2008 and Thompson and Mulac, 1991 about that-omission in relative
and complement clauses) seem to be very compatible with the idea that the
differences are really due to processing and that comprehenders then might
become biased to preferentially infer different meanings for the different
forms (e.g. the concept of mono-clausality in Fox and Thompson; see also
Wasow, Jaeger, and Orr, 2011 and the attached discussion with Ruth Kempson,
a pre-final draft of this paper and commentary on it is available at:

2011/8/6 <john at research.haifa.ac.il>

> One issue here is 'what is meaning?' Is this supposed to include only
> lexical
> meaning? Does it include aspect? Does it include definiteness? Does it
> include
> the relative topicality of different referents? I mention these factors in
> particular because they are common factors which affect voice alternations
> (active vs passive, ergative vs antipassive). If such factors are included
> as
> 'meaning', then it's going to be pretty hard to find cases in which there
> are
> syntactic alternations which aren't associated with meaning differences.
> Another issue is that, as Florian mentions (and I described in my message
> about
> do/VS in English questions), there are often a variety of factors all of
> which
> have an effect on an alternation. I am particularly aware of this because I
> studied at Penn and I'm completely used to doing multivariate statistical
> analysis such as sociolinguists typically do with phonological
> variables--except that I've also done them with syntactic alternations. And
> even aside from factors like aspect, definiteness, topicality, etc.,
> there's
> also the matter of style, which further confounds the issue. And heaviness
> (for
> the EME do/VS alternation the most important factor was that 'do' was
> particularly favored with transitive verbs with nominal subjects, e.g. 'Did
> Bill see the bird?' vs 'Saw Bill the bird?'
> This said, if we take a broad understanding of 'meaning', my experience so
> far
> has been that I have never met an alternation for which I haven't been able
> to
> find SOME meaning-related difference. This includes active vs passive,
> argative
> vs antipassive, clitic-climbing in Romance languages (e.g. Spanish 'quiero
> conocerlo' vs 'lo quiero conocer'), and 'equivalent' English modals like
> should/ought, have to/have got to. The various 'I' words (boku, ore,
> watashi)
> and 'you' words (anata, kimi, omae, etc.) in Japanese have clearly
> different
> meanings. Even words from different speech levels in Javanese, where the
> alternation is supposedly conditioned purely by stylistic factors, turn out
> to
> have slightly different meanings. I haven't tried to find a meaning
> difference
> for complementizer 'that', and I have to admit that I have an instinctive
> feeling that there is no difference--but I wouldn't be surprised that if I
> spent a long time investigating the topic, I could find some difference.
> Also--the fact that different speakers claim that there is a meaning
> distinction
> in a certain case but the describe it in opposite terms doesn't mean that
> there
> isn't a meaning difference--it usually seems to mean that the speakers are
> using the term in different ways. When I've asked Russian speakers about
> the
> difference between the obligation markers nuzhno and dolzhen, some will say
> that one is more stronger while others will say that the other is
> stronger--but
> it's because express two types of obligation, one an objective obligation
> based
> upon 'the nature of things', the other based upon emotions, and some people
> think that one kind of obligation is stronger while others think that the
> other
> kind of obligation is stronger. Similarly, I repeatedly had the experience
> of
> being confused about the meanings of Arabic emotion words because Arabic
> speakers generally believe that emotions which are kept inside are
> 'stronger'
> than emotions which are expressed, whereas the reverse is generally true
> for
> English speakers (who tend to think that if an emotion is too strong it
> can't
> be controled). So the descriptions of the average person aren't really
> worth
> too much in many cases if you don't know what they mean by them.
> John
> Quoting "T. Florian Jaeger" <tiflo at csli.stanford.edu>:
> > Hi Fritz,
> >
> > I've recently spent more time thinking about the very same question. I
> am,
> > however, not even sure that it is a well-formed question. At least if
> we're
> > willing to base our decision about the correct answer on data from actual
> > language understanding (I am not sure that meaning can be meaningfully
> > defined if we don't commit to this assumption).
> >
> > The mapping from perceptual input to meaning is noisy, so that two
> different
> > forms can most certainly lead to the same set of inferences. This might
> seem
> > irrelevant to your question, but I think it might affect the answer.
> Meaning
> > differences that are associated with linguistic forms that are very
> likely
> > to lead to overlapping perceptual inputs are unlikely to be learnable.
> >
> > You were asking about syntactic alternatives (or syntactically related
> forms
> > that share the same meaning). But even for those, there are some that
> differ
> > very little in perceivable linguistic form (e.g. that-omission, which you
> > mentioned; or to-deletion after *help* in English). I think there are
> > reasons to suspect that such difficult to perceive differences (in
> > conversational speech either of these two words is often going to reduced
> to
> > some co-articulatory information on the surrounding words) are unlikely
> to
> > be associated with strong meaning differences. This, of course, hasn't
> kept
> > people from claiming such meaning differences (e.g. Yaguchi, 2001; Dor,
> 2005
> > for that-omission). However, those meaning differences that seem so
> apparent
> > when we look at written language offline seem to be hard to confirm in
> > studies. Some years ago, Rafe Kinsey (back then an undergrad at Stanford)
> > conducted a study (together with Tom Wasow and me) on alleged meaning
> > differences between complement clauses with "that" and those without. We
> > didn't find any evidence for meaning differences. This, of course,
> doesn't
> > mean that there are none. What I thought was interesting is that I used
> to
> > bug some of my fellow students about whether they felt that complement
> > clauses with "that" were different from those without "that". Almost all
> of
> > them felt that there was a meaning difference. However, none of them
> agreed
> > on what the difference was and several of them even had the exact
> opposite
> > opinion! I find that example, though anecdotal in nature, quite
> instructive:
> > perhaps we can't help thinking that there are meaning differences, but
> that
> > doesn't mean that they are stable enough to become successfully
> associated
> > with one of the two forms.
> >
> > I've been fascinated by the fact that most of my fellow psycholinguists
> > simply assume that there are no (relevant) meaning differences between
> > syntactic alternatives. They are quite fine running active vs. passive
> > experiments where effects of animacy or givenness of the agent or theme
> on
> > the preferred choice between the two structures are interpreted as
> evidence
> > about the underlying structure of the production system, rather than as
> > evidence for meaning differences. Arguably, they have one thing on their
> > side: these and other factors have the predicted effects across many
> > structural alternations across many languages (cf. e.g, Branigan et al
> 2009;
> > Jaeger and Norcliffe, 2009 for overviews).
> >
> > I agree with the other comments that differences in form often end up
> > becoming associated with differences in meaning, but I think that for
> many
> > alternations, at any given point in time, differences in meaning **are
> just
> > one of several factors* *that determine speakers' preference between the
> two
> > forms. For example, there is evidence from heavy NP shift that sometimes
> the
> > only reason why it happens is that the heavy NP was not yet ready for
> > articulation when the speaker had to make a choice as to how to maintain
> > fluency (Wasow, 1997). Also, would we really want to claim that the same
> > speakers describing the same pictures reliably choose their argument
> order
> > (e.g. in the ditransitive structure) based on the number of words in the
> > theme/recipient constituent because that affects how likely they are to
> > think of the picture one way or another, thereby affecting what subtle
> > meaning difference they want to convey? It's possible, but I wouldn't bet
> my
> > money on it. Do we want to attribute the fact that more predictable
> relative
> > and complement clauses are less likely to have a
> relativizer/complementizer
> > "that" to meaning differences (same of passive RCs, to-omission,
> > contraction, etc.; Jaeger, 2006; 2010, 2011; Wasow et al., 2011; Levy and
> > Jaeger, 2007; Frank and Jaeger, 2008)? From a processing-perspective this
> > makes perfect sense, whereas the meaning theories that have been evoked
> > differ for each of those cases.
> >
> > All of this is not to say that comprehenders aren't incredibly sensitive
> to
> > the motivations behind speakers' preferences. Actually, there's plenty of
> > evidence for that. For example, Arnold et al show that comprehenders know
> > that speakers are more disfluent before difficult words and that
> knowledge
> > allows them to process words that are a priori more difficult much faster
> > after a disfluency. Similarly, comprehenders expect difficult material
> after
> > a "that" at the onset of a complement or relative clause and if they
> don't
> > get it this slows comprehension (relatively speaking; Race and MacDonald,
> > 2003). I think it's perceivable that these processing-based expectations
> can
> > easily create the 'illusion' of a meaning difference. They are also
> likely
> > to 'cause' meaning differences in the long run, but it seems to me (from
> the
> > data I have seen in experiments) that these meaning differences can be
> quite
> > fickle for a long time and can be overriden by processing preferences.
> One
> > of my students, Judith Degen, recently started looking into the
> possibility
> > that such processing preferences might even affect the choice between two
> > rather meaning-different forms (she's focusing on "some X" vs. "some of
> the
> > X"; recently presented at XPRAG 2011).
> >
> > So my current best-bet-speculation (see also my thesis, Chapter 6.2.2) is
> > that speakers, when they encode their intended meaning into linguistic
> > forms, probabilistically select between different forms and that this
> > selection is affected by the strength of connections between different
> > meanings and that form as well as processing considerations (such as the
> > well-documented preference to avoid speech suspension; for refs see, e.g.
> > Clark and Fox-Tree, 2002; Fox-Tree and Clark, 1997; V. Ferreira and Dell,
> > 2000; V. Feirreira 1996; Bock, 1987).
> >
> > so in this sense (if my argument makes sense), it would be misleading to
> > think that most alternatives in syntactic alternations are meaning
> distinct
> > unless you're willing to accept any difference in the probability
> > distribution over inferred meanings given a linguistic form as evidence
> for
> > difference meanings -- in that case, it would probably hold that no two
> > forms are the same (including no two actual acoustic realizations of the
> > same syntactic structure, since they will differ in speech rate, etc.,
> which
> > will affect some inferences the comprehender might draw).
> >
> > I think for any stronger claim about meaning differences there would need
> to
> > be testable (and preferably quantifiable) theories about those meaning
> > differences, so that they could be pitched against well-established
> theories
> > of speakers' preferences during incremental language production.
> >
> > I hope some of this is useful? This would be an awefully long email if it
> > turned out to be completely incomprehensible ;).
> >
> > florian
> >
> > One final thought - didn't Bresnan et al (2007) also discuss alleged
> meaning
> > differences for the ditransitive alternation?
> >
> >
> >  ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> > >
> > > Message: 1
> > > Date: Thu, 4 Aug 2011 14:17:27 -0700 (PDT)
> > > From: Frederick J Newmeyer <fjn at u.washington.edu>
> > > Subject: [FUNKNET] difference in form without difference in meaning
> > > To: Funknet <funknet at mailman.rice.edu>
> > > Message-ID:
> > >        <alpine.LRH.2.01.1108041417270.26399 at hymn33.u.washington.edu>
> > > Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII
> > >
> > > Dear Funknetters,
> > >
> > > I am looking for convincing examples of where two syntactically-related
> > > sentence-types manifest clearly identical meanings, where 'meaning' is
> > taken
> > > in its broadest sense, including discourse-pragmatic aspects. Another
> way
> > of
> > > putting it is to say that I am looking for two sentence types that in
> early
> > > TG would have been related by 'optional rules', but which absolutely do
> not
> > > differ in meaning. It's not so easy to come up with good examples, once
> > > differences in topicality and focus are allowed as meaning differences.
> One
> > > possible example that comes to mind are sentences with or without
> > > complementizer-deletion, such as 'I knew that he'd be on time', vs. 'I
> knew
> > > he'd be on time'. But even here there have been argued to be meaning
> > > differences.
> > >
> > > One possibility that has been suggested to me is from Early Modern
> English,
> > > when many speakers could say both 'Saw you the bird?' and 'Did you see
> the
> > > bird?' Does anybody have evidence that there were subtle meaning
> > differences
> > > here?
> > >
> > > I had always been quite skeptical of Dwight Bolinger's idea that
> > > differences in (lexical and syntactic) form always correlate with
> meaning
> > > differences. But I have become less skeptical recently.
> > >
> > > Thanks,
> > >
> > > --fritz
> > >
> > > Frederick J. Newmeyer
> > > Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
> > > Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser
> > > University
> > > [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]
> > >
> > >
> >
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
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