Field of Science

All Italians Smoke

Although most behavior experiments are conducted in the lab, it's nice to be reminded occasionally that it's possible to conduct experiments in the human's natural environment...such as a nightclub. Italian scientists studied responses to requests for a cigarette at three nightclubs in central Italy.

That scientists would study Italian's smoking behaviors comes as no surprise to anyone who has been reading semantics recently. It seems that half the example sentences in the papers I read involve some variation on "all Italians smoke."

Calling all 12 year olds

I've been analyzing data from the Memory Test. The response to that experiment has been fantastic, so I'm able to look at performance based on age, from about 14 years old to about 84 years old. Interestingly, by 14 years old, people are performing at adult levels. I have a few kids in the 10-13 range, but not quite enough. It would be nice to know at what age people hit adult competency.

So...if you or someone you know is in that age range, I'd like a few more participants in the near future. I should actually be able to put up a description of the results relatively quickly in this case, should I get enough participants.

The Value of Experiments

I have been reading Heim & Kratzer's Semantics in Generative Grammar, which is an excellent introduction to formal semantics. On the whole, I've really liked the book, until I got to an example sentence in the 8th chapter:

(1) Every man placed a screen in front of him.

The authors claimed that this sentence was synonymous with

(2) Every man placed a screen in front of himself.

I though this was absurd, because to me the first sentence must mean that there is some man (let's call him 'Jim,') and all the other men put a screen in front of Jim. It just can't have the meaning of (2). I have a great deal of respect for the authors, but my immediate reaction was that this must be one of those cases in which linguists unconciously adapt their judgments to their theory (it was important for the theory Heim & Kratzer were developing that (1) mean the same as (2)).

Just to be sure, I walked into the office down the hall and took a poll of the seven people in it, none of whom study pronouns or are particularly familiar with the literature. Two of them agreed with me, but five agreed with Heim & Kratzer. So this may be a dialectical difference.

Now I feel bad about having doubted H&K, but in any case it is a good lesson about studying language: don't trust your own intuitions. Get a second opinion.