Acceptability judgments in Japanese

The “armchair debate” in linguistics is about to what extent we can trust a researcher’s own intuition when they deem a sentence acceptable or not. Linzen & Oseki (2015) make the point that what works for English might not work for lesser-studied languages:
The vast majority of published English judgments can be replicated with naive participants (Sprouse & Almeida, 2012; Sprouse et al., 2013). We argued that this is due to two reasons. First, a large proportion of the acceptability judgments illustrate obvious and uncontroversial contrasts (Type I/II judgments). Second, more subtle contrasts (Type III judgments) are informally vetted by a large community of linguists who are native English speakers. While not foolproof, this informal peer review process weeds out most questionable judgments (Phillips, 2010). To examine the efficacy of the peer review process in languages other than English, we selected acceptability judgments in Hebrew and Japanese that we deemed to be questionable. A half (in Hebrew) or a third (in Japanese) of the Type III judgments failed to replicate, while all Type II judgments were robustly replicated. These results suggest that (1) formal acceptability rating experiments are not necessary for each and every judgment, (2) linguists can effectively identify questionable contrasts, and (3) informal peer review mechanisms are less effective for languages spoken by a smaller number of linguists.
For illustration, an “uncontroversial” contrast would be like:
a. Kesa ame-ga hut-ta.
this.morning rain-Nom fall-Past
‘It rained this morning.’
b. *Sakuban kaminari-no nat-ta.
last.night thunder-Gen fall-Past
‘It thundered last night.’
Whereas a “questionable” one would be:
a. Maryi-no [kanozyoi-ga kik-anakat-ta] hihan
Mary-Gen she-Nom hear-Neg-Past criticism
‘Mary’s criticism that she did not hear’
b. *Maryi-no [kanozyoi-no kik-anakat-ta] hihan
Mary-Gen she-Gen hear-Neg-Past criticism
‘Mary’s criticism that she did not hear’
Linzen & Oseki’s data are test sentences from real studies. This latter one is from Sakai’s Complex NP Constraint and case conversion in Japanese (1994); and the group study rated the pair in the opposite direction as Sakai’s intuition.

One thought on “Acceptability judgments in Japanese

  1. Thanks for an interesting link.

    I’m not a linguist, so I have nothing to base it on, but I’ve often found the black and white grammaticality judgment approach used in many linguistic papers to be quite counterintuitive. Grammaticality, to me, seems like a spectrum.

    Assuming that my hunch is not completely wrong, I also wonder if some languages have more gray-area cases than others. I feel that Japanese might qualify as a language where grammaticality is less often clear-cut than in, say, English.

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