Research Projects

Toward a Theory of Meaning in Language Use

The meaning of Abstract Words (ABSTRACT)

The ability to understand and use language referring to abstract entities, events, and qualities is arguably a uniquely human faculty. The objective of this project is to deepen our understanding of the acquisition and representation in the mind/brain of abstract concepts by adopting a cross-linguistic and interdisciplinary perspective. We contrast two explicit working hypotheses: the Embodiment Hypothesis (EH) and the Abstraction from Language Hypothesis (ALH), which are associated with largely different predictions. According to ALH (but not EH) language development is a phylogenetic and ontogenetic prerequisite to the development of abstract concepts. On the other hand, a close connection of abstract concepts with sensorimotor representations is predicted by EH, while ALH is compatible with a main involvement of the left hemispheric classical language areas. We develop these hypotheses using tools from linguistics and computational modeling and test predictions in (1) behavioural studies; (2) developmental studies of typically developing and cognitively impaired children and (3) cognitive neuroscientific studies (ERP, fMRI, TMS and patients' studies).

The meanings of object and action (event) words

The starting point of our work has been the development of statistical models of the representation of word meaning in different languages (English, Italian, German and Japanese), based on psychologically and neurally plausible architectural assumptions (see Vigliocco, Vinson, Lewis and Garrett, 2004; Vinson, Vigliocco, Cappa & Siri, 2003). From the statistical models, we derived measures of semantic similarity among words referring to objects and actions. Our investigation of words referring to actions is crucial, as the majority of previous work has been strictly limited to the object domain. These statistical models allowed us to derive predictions regarding behavioral studies, the performance of neuropsychological patients, and imaging studies. The behavioural and neuropsychological patient data have confirmed the central predictions of our statistical models. Imaging experiments are in progress, which aim to establish whether our statistical models correctly predict haemodynamic responses during lexical access.

Relevant publications and presentations:
  • Damian, M., Vigliocco, G., & Levelt, W.J. (2001). Effects of semantic context in the naming of pictures and words. Cognition, 81, B77-B86. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Cappa, S., Garrett, M.F., Indefrey, P., Sanz, M. & Tabossi, P.(2003). The representation and neural substrate of meaning and syntax. Paper presented to the Human Frontier Awardee Meeting, Cambridge, July. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Damian, M.F. & Levelt, W. (2002). Semantic distance effects on object and action naming. Cognition, 85, B61-B69. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P, Lewis, W. & Garrett, M.F. (2004). Representing the meanings of object and action words: The featural and unitary semantic space hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 48, 422-488. [pdf] Vigliocco, G., Lauer, M., Damian, M. & Levelt, W. (2002). Semantic and syntactic forces in noun phrase production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 28, 46-58. [pdf]
  • Vinson, D. & Vigliocco, G. (2002). A semantic analysis of grammatical class impairments. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 15, 317-351. [pdf]
  • Vinson, D.P., Vigliocco, G., Cappa, S. & Siri, S. (2003). The breakdown of semantic knowledge along semantic field boundaries: Insights from an empirically-driven statistical model of meaning representation. Brain & Language, 86, 347-365. [pdf]

The Interplay between Meaning and Syntax

The behavioural and neural separability of meaning and syntax

All languages have different parts of speech, and most relevant here, all languages distinguish between nouns and verbs (albeit in different manners). This fact has been taken by some to indicate that grammatical class is one likely candidate for being part of a language organ, part of our genetic makeup. According to this view, grammatical class is behaviourally and neurally separable from semantic distinctions (and also from the manner in which it is realised in wordforms in languages). In contrast, some researchers adhering to a non-nativist view have argued that grammatical class is a property emergent from semantic distinctions (as well as language-specific differences in the wordform that correlate with grammatical class). Hence, grammatical class is not separable from meaning, either behaviourally or neurally. The general objective of our work is to scrutinise the claim that grammatical class is an organisational principle for lexical representation in the brain. More precisely, we seek: (1) to extensively evaluate whether grammatical class effects in behavioural tasks are separable from the effects of meaning differences between words in different grammatical classes and (2) to begin to evaluate the neural separability between meaning and grammatical class.

This project, sponsored by a research grant from the BBSRC, includes collaborations with Dr Noriko Iwasaki (U. California - Davis) for experiments in Japanese and Prof Richard Wise, Dr Jane Warren and Dr Sophie Scott (Hammersmith Cyclotron Unit, for imaging experiments).

Also on the agenda is some collaborative work with Dr Sonja Kotz (MPI, Leipzig); and Dr Morten Christiansen (Cornell University).

Relevant publications & presentations:
  • Vigliocco,_G.,_Vinson,_D.P.,_Siri,_S._&_Iwasaki,_N. (2003). Semantic similarity and grammatical class effects in naming actions. Presented at the 44th Meeting of the Psychonomic Society. [pdf]
  • Garrard, P., Carroll, E., Vinson, D.P., & Vigliocco, G. (2004). Dissociating lexico-semantics and lexico-syntax in semantic dementia. Neurocase, 10, 353-362. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Lauer, M., Damian, M. & Levelt, W. (2002). Semantic and syntactic forces in noun phrase production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 28, 46-58. [pdf]

Language-specific effects on meaning representation

Speakers of different languages must attend to and encode different aspects of the world in order to use their language properly (Sapir, 1921; Slobin, 1996). A crucial question is whether differences in what is obligatorily expressed in a language (Jakobson, 1959) can affect thinking such that, for example, speakers of Italian tend to pay greater attention to gender differences (since gender is grammaticalised in the language) than English speakers (since gender is not a grammatical category in English). This question, concerning linguistic relativity (Sapir, 1921; Whorf, 1956), has been largely ignored in cognitive psychology in the past twenty years, but is regaining popularity because of greater awareness of cross-linguistic differences. In this project, we scrutinise this question by asking whether syntactic properties of words (i.e., features of words that determine their use in sentences) that differ across languages (Italian and English) affect speakers' mental representations of the corresponding objects and events.

This work is sponsored by the ESRC.

  • Vigliocco G. & Filopovic Kleiner L. (2004). From mind in the mouth to language in mind. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8, 5-7. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P. & Paganelli, F. (2004). Grammatical gender and meaning. Proceedings of the 26th Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D., Indefrey, P., Levelt, W., & Hellwig, F. (2004). Role of grammatical gender and semantics in German word production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 30, 483-497. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Paganelli F. & Dworzynski, K. Grammatical gender effects on cognition: Implications for language learning and language use. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G. & Hartsuiker, R.J. (2002). The interplay of meaning, sound & syntax in language production. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 442-472. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P, Lewis, W. & Garrett, M.F. (2004). Representing the meanings of object and action words: The featural and unitary semantic space hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 48, 422-488. [pdf]

The Interplay between Meaning and Form

The Interplay between Meaning and Form In this project we investigate the behavioural consequences of iconicity (i.e., the fact that some phonological properties of the sign, e.g., handshape, movement and position, resemble some aspects of the corresponding objects or actions) in British Sign Language (BSL). It has been estimated that up to 78% of the lexical signs in BSL have some iconic properties, which in principle may provide privileged access to non-linguistic information. In this project we attempt to pinpoint the potential learning and processing/representation advantages of iconicity, by carrying out behavioural experiments with first and second language learners of BSL.

So far, this project has been partially supported by a pilot award from James McDonnell Foundation and is in collaboration with Prof. Bencie Woll (City University), and Dr Matt Dye (U. Rochester). See DCAL for more information.

Meaning, Sound and Syntax in Language Production

Lexical Retrieval during Production

A large body of evidence indicates that retrieving words for speaking involves first retrieving the meaning and then information concerning the sound-form. Until recently, although a number of models assumed that retrieving words for speaking also involves retrieving syntactic information, there was no clear evidence to support this claim. We provided evidence that syntactic information is lexically represented, and some preliminary evidence that syntactic information is available in production before phonological information.

  • Vigliocco, G., Vinson, D.P., Martin, R.C., & Garrett, M.F. (1999). Is "count" and "mass" information available when the noun is not? An investigation of tip of the tongue states and anomia. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 534-558. [pdf]
  • Vinson, D.P., & Vigliocco, G. (1999). Can independence be observed in a dependent system? Brain and Language, 68, 118-126. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Antonini, T., & Garrett, M.F. (1997). Grammatical gender is on the tip of Italian tongues. Psychological Science, 8, 314-317.

Sentence Integration

Sentence integration is the process of integrating the stored linguistic information (meaning, sound and syntax) into sentences during sentence production The main question concerning sentence integration we have addressed is to what extent the encoding of a sentence at one level (e.g., syntactic) is encapsulated from information from other levels (e.g., conceptual and phonological information).

  • Vigliocco, G. & Hartsuiker, R.J. (2002). The interplay of meaning, sound & syntax in language production. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 442-472. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., & Franck, J. (2001). When sex hits syntax: Gender agreement in sentence production. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 368-390. [pdf]
  • Franck, J., Vigliocco G., & Nicol, J.L. (2002). The role of syntactic tree structure and complexity in subject-verb agreement. Language and Cognitive Processes, 17, 371-404. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G. & Franck, J. (1999). When Sex and Syntax go hand in hand: Gender agreement in language production. Journal of Memory and Language, 40, 455-478. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., & Zilli, T. (1999). Syntactic accuracy in sentence production: Gender disagreement in Italian language impaired and unimpaired speakers. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 28, 623-648. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G. & Nicol, J. L. (1998). Separating hierarchical relations and word order in language production. Is proximity concord syntactic or linear? Cognition, 68, 13-29. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G, Butterworth, B & Garrett, M.F. (1996). Subject-Verb agreement in Spanish and English: Differences in the role of conceptual factors. Cognition, 61, 261-298. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Hartsuiker, R.J., Jarema, G., & Kolk, H.H.J. (1996). How many labels on the bottles? Notional concord in Dutch and French. Language and Cognitive Processes, 11, 407-421. [pdf]
  • Vigliocco, G., Butterworth, B. & Semenza, C. (1995). Computing Subject Verb agreement in speech: The role of semantic and morphological information. Journal of Memory and Language, 34, 186-215. [pdf]