Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Demeco (Default meanings in compound interpretation)
Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2018-09-30
Study 1 investigated the interpretation of these compounds in isolation. In a computer-based questionnaire study, 20 participants gave their interpretation of the compounds and rated how difficult it was to come up with an interpretation. The participants were all native speakers of British English who were aged 16-19 years and had grown up in the East of England. The compounds varied widely in the number of interpretations they received, and only four compounds had a preferred interpretation on which at least half the participants agreed. To quantify the variation, we introduced three measures: the percentage of participants who gave a non-unique interpretation (convergence), the number of different interpretations given (spread), and the degree of unpredictability of the interpretations (entropy). All three of these measures were found to correlate with the perceived difficulty of interpretation; in other words, the greater the variation in the interpretations given by our participants, the more difficult they perceived the compound to interpret. This is evidence that some compounds tend more than others towards having a default interpretation, whether defaultness is understood in terms of agreement between speakers (as in the theory of generalised conversational implicatures) or in terms of ease of interpretation (as in the theory of default semantics). Furthermore, these two understandings of defaultness converge, in the sense that the same compounds are more or less ‘default’ irrespective of which approach is adopted. We then looked to see whether the relative ease of interpretation of different compounds could be explained in terms of their linguistic properties and the properties of other compounds sharing a word, the so-called compound constituent families: for example, the constituent families of ‘bank account’ include ‘bank manager’, ‘bank statement’, ‘bank holiday’, ‘credit account’, ‘cheque account’, ‘eye-witness account’ and so on. We found that the best predictor of interpretation difficulty was the variability in senses of the second noun in its constituent family: the greater the unpredictability of the meaning of the second noun in other compounds, the more difficult was the compound to interpret. This suggests that disambiguating the individual words, especially the final word, is a crucial step in compound interpretation.
Study 2 investigated the behaviour of twenty of these compounds in context. We created contexts that biased the readers towards an unusual interpretation of the compound, and tracked the eye movements of participants when reading these compounds. In addition to the eye-tracking itself, Study 2 also consisted of an extensive pre-test, which we used to check that the contexts were likely to produce the interpretations we expected, and a post-test, to check what the participants actually thought. At the time of writing the eye-tracking data is still being analysed.