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Cycle BCL - Chiara Zanini

Exploring the relation between Number morphology and numerical cognition : insights from an ERP study

Jeudi 08 novembre à 10h, salle 213

Morphological Number encodes the numerosity of the referents and is widespread throughout natural languages (e.g. Dryer 2013, Chapter 33A, WALS). Why is numerosity so pervasive in morphological paradigms especially in comparison with other features (e.g. color) that are not grammaticalised ?
Increasing evidence suggests that the probability that a feature is encoded into the grammars is linked with the salience played by that feature at a cognitive level in connection with the core knowledge systems (e.g. Bickel et al. 2015 ; Christiansen & Chater 2008 ; Franzon et al 2018 ; Strickland 2016 ; Zanini et al. 2017). According to the core knowledge hypothesis, humans would be endowed with a set of cognitive mechanisms to represent the most relevant aspects of the environment such as inanimate and animate physical objects, places in the spatial layout with their geometric relationships, time and numbers (Spelke 2000 ; Carey 2009 ; Vallortigara et al. 2010).

I will discuss the possibility that the information about numerosity is relevant to the extent that numerical cognition interacts with language grammars and shape morphological Number paradigms. Speakers would automatically inflect for morphological Number using quantitative and numerical information, suggesting that numerosities and magnitudes are cognitively processed whenever these are communicated within language. Until now, the relation between numerical cognition and language has been investigated mainly in relation to the lexicon, whereas few studies have focussed on grammatical features (neural signature : Carreiras et al. 2010 ; number line [SNARC] studies : Roettger & Domahs 2015 ; developmental studies : Almoammer et al. 2013 ; Barner et al. 2007 ; Marušic et al. 2016 ; Sarnecka et al 2007). I will illustrate the state of the art on this topic with particular reference to a recent event-related potential (ERP) study that my colleagues and I conducted to measure the time course of the processing of singular and plural in Italian (Arcara et al., in preparation).

Italian has two quantification expressions, alcuni ‘some’+noun.PL and qualche ‘some’+nouns.SG, both of which refer to a plural numerosity ; yet, nouns agree in the plural with alcuni and in the singular with qualche. This peculiarity of Italian can be useful to disentangle effects due to the morphophonological form of a Number value from effects due to its referential meaning. We chose 30 nouns referring to countable, concrete objects and created two pictures for each one : in one, the object was represented once, in the other four times. Each picture was displayed once followed by un/uno+noun.SG, once with qualche+noun.SG, and once followed by alcuni+noun.PL, for a total of 180 experimental stimuli. Twenty-six participants were asked to press one key if the phrase matched with the picture, another key in the opposite case. We tested whether the quantification expressions elicit ERP components associated with violations in response to the numerosity represented in the picture. We analysed ERPs time-locked to the presentation of the noun. After a picture representing one object, nouns following both qualche and alcuni elicited a larger Left Anterior Negativity (LAN) as compared to the conditions involving a picture displaying four objects. Considering the LAN as an index of morphosyntactic inconsistency (e.g. Molinaro et al. 2011), this result suggests that the reference to numerosity could be incrementally encoded and number information can be accessed during the processing of morphological Number. Interestingly enough, we did not find LAN effects in the condition involving pictures displaying four objects followed by un+noun.SG. This pattern has been never reported in the literature before and may point to the fact that the morphological Number value of plural has a narrower interpretability than the singular as for the denoted numerosity. We interpreted this pattern as psychological evidence of the fact that singular, more than plural, is prone to be the default unmarked Number value.

Chiara Zanini, Université de Padova.

publié par Raphaëlle Rebillart-Sauvaigo - mis à jour le