Saturday, June 9, 2012

Verbs and Lexical Access

(This time around, I have included a response paper that I originally wrote for a 400 level linguistics class at UMASS. I have made minor revisions, and this article is shorter than the original paper. For example, I have not included the original speech error list.

If anybody has any criticisms, comments, or additional information on my paper or the subject I would be glad to hear them.)

      Irregular verbs and past participles are stored and accessed differently in the brain than regular verbs. During speech, irregular verbs and verbs that use the past participle are often used in the wrong form, nevertheless the mispronounced sentence still makes sense to the listener. Just as children often add the suffix -ed to verbs in order to place them in the past tense, adults tend to make similar mistakes with the irregular and past participle verbs, showing us that unconscious grammatical decisions are being made.
      When looking for data, the criteria used was recorded speech errors overheard in everyday discussions on the UMASS campus. The errors collected were written down at the exact time and place of the utterance. From the list, errors were compiled together into appendix A. In this case the errors were irregular verbs and past participles used in the wrong tense. Later, several examples were traded with other students in the Linguistics class. Sentence [1] is a basic example of the speech errors being dealt with.
       [1] Yeah and then I drunk it.
Sentence [2] is an example of the speech errors where a past participle was not used.
       [2] He brung us the paperwork yesterday.
While these errors were encountered often, there was never a case where a regular verb was used in the wrong tense. The sentence below is an example of such a nonexistent sentence:
       [*] She had heal the wound.
In the case of regular verbs, it is nearly impossible to get the tense wrong because the form never changes. However, without realizing it, people seem to know when a verb is irregular and that they need to change the form of it some how. Often the case may seem to be made up, as in sentences such as [3] and [8].
       [3] I throwed him the keys.
       [8] Yeah, I dreamed of the same thing.
      The fact that people need to change the word reflects that the speaker has identified irregular verbs as being different from regular verbs, and need to be handled differently; the speaker may recognize that the word needs to be slightly conjugated, although not necessarily conjugated correctly.
       Proposed methods to study this hypothesis would be to present a subject with an identification test with a mixed group of sentences containing regular and irregular verbs in both correct and incorrect tenses. Then letting the subject decide which sentences are fluent or not fluent from a scale on one to five, and then mapping the results against one another. This will provide us with a graphic representation of which sentences are considered more fluent than others and at which point sentences become completely disfluent altogether.
       Further research could give us answers to questions such as; at what point does the use of the wrong tense make the sentence incomprehensible? Which sentences fall in the middle? Every sentence in Appendix A is not grammatically correct, but we still understand what is being communicated. For example:
       [6] I ain't got any.
       Furthermore, in a separate study subjects could be tested by asking them casual questions where full sentence responses from them would be likely to include irregular verbs and past participles such as “Tell me about your last dream.” or “tell me who brought you into the room”. Separate subjects could be asked the same questions, already using the wrong form (“Tell me about when you last dreamed.”, “Who brung you into the room?”) If the subject answers the questions while still using the incorrect form it would mean that they still completely understand the sentence, if they used the same incorrect form when answering a question it may mean that they have not dried to think about the grammar of a sentence anymore because there seems to be is already enough grammatical information available. However, this could also be seen as a form of priming.
       If the subjects were monitored using an ERP or fMRI device, it could be possible to see which neurons fire, and where in the brain they fire when a sentence that uses an irregular, regular, or grammatically incorrect sentence is uttered. Certain forms of irregular verbs may also be considered correct to the speaker or listener depending on colloquial speech or even slang. In which case a national or international survey or research which draws in subjects from various English speaking cultures could be compared with the same identification task mentioned above. An abnormality in verb conjugation from a group of speakers from a certain region may reflect this. Examples include “sunk” and “sank”, or possibly even the use of “y'all” as “you all” and which verb tenses are often used along with it.
       From a connectionist perspective is there a way to map verb conjugation in a similar way to word recognition? If this was the case maybe it would be possible to discriminate between when speakers use the past participle and when they don't. Is it possible that we may be subconsciously communicating something when we do or do not use the past participle? Either way, which mental processes are, or are not taking place?
Apendix A

Errors Involving wrong verb form being used.
  1. Yeah, and then I drunk it. Friend (drank, had drunk)
  2. He brung us the paperwork yesterday. Customer (brought)
  3. I throwed him the keys! Father (threw)
  4. I hate it when I make coffee and it don't get drank. Traded (nobody drinks it)
  5. I sweeped the floor. Traded (swept)
  6. I aint got any! Traded (I don't have any)
  7. He had took the receipts! Coworker (had taken)
  8. Yeah, I've dreamed of the same thing. Student (I've dreamt)

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