Academic Appointments

  • Assistant Professor, Linguistics

Program Affiliations

  • Symbolic Systems Program

2023-24 Courses

Stanford Advisees

All Publications

  • Expectations over Unspoken Alternatives Predict Pragmatic Inferences TRANSACTIONS OF THE ASSOCIATION FOR COMPUTATIONAL LINGUISTICS Hu, J., Levy, R., Degen, J., Schuster, S. 2023; 11: 885-901
  • The Rational Speech Act Framework ANNUAL REVIEW OF LINGUISTICS Degen, J. 2023; 9: 519-540

    View details for DOI 10.1353/lan.0.0271

    View details for Web of Science ID 000892471200003

  • Modeling word and morpheme order in natural language as an efficient trade-off of memory and surprisal. Psychological review Hahn, M., Degen, J., Futrell, R. 2021; 128 (4): 726-756


    Memory limitations are known to constrain language comprehension and production, and have been argued to account for crosslinguistic word order regularities. However, a systematic assessment of the role of memory limitations in language structure has proven elusive, in part because it is hard to extract precise large-scale quantitative generalizations about language from existing mechanistic models of memory use in sentence processing. We provide an architecture-independent information-theoretic formalization of memory limitations which enables a simple calculation of the memory efficiency of languages. Our notion of memory efficiency is based on the idea of a memory-surprisal trade-off: A certain level of average surprisal per word can only be achieved at the cost of storing some amount of information about the past context. Based on this notion of memory usage, we advance the Efficient Trade-off Hypothesis: The order of elements in natural language is under pressure to enable favorable memory-surprisal trade-offs. We derive that languages enable more efficient trade-offs when they exhibit information locality: When predictive information about an element is concentrated in its recent past. We provide empirical evidence from three test domains in support of the Efficient Trade-off Hypothesis: A reanalysis of a miniature artificial language learning experiment, a large-scale study of word order in corpora of 54 languages, and an analysis of morpheme order in two agglutinative languages. These results suggest that principles of order in natural language can be explained via highly generic cognitively motivated principles and lend support to efficiency-based models of the structure of human language. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).

    View details for DOI 10.1037/rev0000269

    View details for PubMedID 33793259

  • Morpheme Ordering Across Languages Reflects Optimization for Processing Efficiency. Open mind : discoveries in cognitive science Hahn, M., Mathew, R., Degen, J. 2021; 5: 208-232


    The ordering of morphemes in a word displays well-documented regularities across languages. Previous work has explained these in terms of notions such as semantic scope, relevance, and productivity. Here, we test a recently formulated processing theory of the ordering of linguistic units, the efficient tradeoff hypothesis (Hahn et al., 2021). The claim of the theory is that morpheme ordering can partly be explained by the optimization of a tradeoff between memory and surprisal. This claim has received initial empirical support from two languages. In this work, we test this idea more extensively using data from four additional agglutinative languages with significant amounts of morphology, and by considering nouns in addition to verbs. We find that the efficient tradeoff hypothesis predicts ordering in most cases with high accuracy, and accounts for cross-linguistic regularities in noun and verb inflection. Our work adds to a growing body of work suggesting that many ordering properties of language arise from a pressure for efficient language processing.

    View details for DOI 10.1162/opmi_a_00051

    View details for PubMedID 36438423

  • Prior Beliefs Modulate Projection. Open mind : discoveries in cognitive science Degen, J., Tonhauser, J. 2021; 5: 59-70


    Beliefs about the world affect language processing and interpretation in several empirical domains. In two experiments, we tested whether subjective prior beliefs about the probability of utterance content modulate projection, that is, listeners' inferences about speaker commitment to that content. We find that prior beliefs predict projection at both the group and the participant level: the higher the prior belief in a content, the more speakers are taken to be committed to it. This result motivates the integration of formal analyses of projection with cognitive theories of language understanding.

    View details for DOI 10.1162/opmi_a_00042

    View details for PubMedID 34746615

  • Evaluative adjective sentences: A question-based analysis of projection GLOSSA-A JOURNAL OF GENERAL LINGUISTICS Tonhauser, J., de Marneffe, M., Degen, J. 2020; 5 (1)

    View details for DOI 10.5334/gjgl.701

    View details for Web of Science ID 000565656400001

  • I know what you're probably going to say: Listener adaptation to variable use of uncertainty expressions. Cognition Schuster, S., Degen, J. 2020; 203: 104285


    Pragmatic theories of utterance interpretation share the assumption that listeners reason about alternative utterances that a speaker could have produced, but didn't. For such reasoning to be successful, listeners must have precise expectations about a speaker's production choices. This is at odds with the considerable variability across speakers that exists at all levels of linguistic representation. This tension can be reconciled by listeners adapting to the statistics of individual speakers. While linguistic adaptation is increasingly widely attested, semantic/pragmatic adaptation is underexplored. Moreover, what kind of representations listeners update during semantic/pragmatic adaptation - estimates of the speaker's lexicon, or estimates of the speaker's utterance preferences - remains poorly understood. In this work, we investigate semantic/pragmatic adaptation in the domain of uncertainty expressions like might and probably. In a series of web-based experiments, we find 1) that listeners vary in their expectations about a generic speaker's use of uncertainty expressions; 2) that listeners rapidly update their expectations about the use of uncertainty expressions after brief exposure to a speaker with a specific usage of uncertainty expressions; and 3) that listeners' interpretations of uncertainty expressions change after being exposed to a specific speaker. We present a novel computational model of semantic/pragmatic adaptation based on Bayesian belief updating and show, through a series of model comparisons, that semantic/pragmatic adaptation is best captured by listeners updating their beliefs both about the speaker's lexicon and their utterance preferences. This work has implications for both semantic theories of uncertainty expressions and psycholinguistic theories of adaptation: it highlights the need for dynamic semantic representations and suggests that listeners integrate their general linguistic knowledge with speaker-specific experiences to arrive at more precise interpretations.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104285

    View details for PubMedID 32535344

  • When redundancy is useful: A Bayesian approach to "overinformative" referring expressions. Psychological review Degen, J., Hawkins, R. D., Graf, C., Kreiss, E., Goodman, N. D. 2020


    Referring is one of the most basic and prevalent uses of language. How do speakers choose from the wealth of referring expressions at their disposal? Rational theories of language use have come under attack for decades for not being able to account for the seemingly irrational overinformativeness ubiquitous in referring expressions. Here we present a novel production model of referring expressions within the Rational Speech Act framework that treats speakers as agents that rationally trade off cost and informativeness of utterances. Crucially, we relax the assumption that informativeness is computed with respect to a deterministic Boolean semantics, in favor of a nondeterministic continuous semantics. This innovation allows us to capture a large number of seemingly disparate phenomena within one unified framework: the basic asymmetry in speakers' propensity to overmodify with color rather than size; the increase in overmodification in complex scenes; the increase in overmodification with atypical features; and the increase in specificity in nominal reference as a function of typicality. These findings cast a new light on the production of referring expressions: rather than being wastefully overinformative, reference is usefully redundant. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).

    View details for DOI 10.1037/rev0000186

    View details for PubMedID 32237876

  • Linking Hypothesis and Number of Response Options Modulate Inferred Scalar Implicature Rate. Frontiers in psychology Jasbi, M., Waldon, B., Degen, J. 2019; 10: 189


    The past 15 years have seen increasing experimental investigations of core pragmatic questions in the ever more active and lively field of experimental pragmatics. Within experimental pragmatics, many of the core questions have relied on the operationalization of the theoretical notion of "implicature rate." Implicature rate based results have informed the work on acquisition, online processing, and scalar diversity, inter alia. Implicature rate has typically been quantified as the proportion of "pragmatic" judgments in two-alternative forced choice truth value judgment tasks. Despite its theoretical importance, this linking hypothesis from implicature rate to behavioral responses has never been extensively tested. Here we show that two factors dramatically affect the "implicature rate" inferred from truth value judgment tasks: (a) the number of responses provided to participants; and (b) the linking hypothesis about what constitutes a "pragmatic" judgment. We argue that it is time for the field of experimental pragmatics to engage more seriously with its foundational assumptions about how theoretical notions map onto behaviorally measurable quantities, and present a sketch of an alternative linking hypothesis that derives behavior in truth value judgment tasks from probabilistic utterance expectations.

    View details for DOI 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00189

    View details for PubMedID 30809167

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC6379463

  • Linking Hypothesis and Number of Response Options Modulate Inferred Scalar Implicature Rate FRONTIERS IN PSYCHOLOGY Jasbi, M., Waldon, B., Degen, J. 2019; 10
  • Definitely, maybe: A new experimental paradigm for investigating the pragmatics of evidential devices across languages JOURNAL OF PRAGMATICS Degen, J., Trotzke, A., Scontras, G., Wittenberg, E., Goodman, N. D. 2019; 140: 33–48
  • On the grammatical source of adjective ordering preferences SEMANTICS & PRAGMATICS Scontras, G., Degen, J., Goodman, N. D. 2019; 12
  • How Projective is Projective Content? Gradience in Projectivity and At-issueness JOURNAL OF SEMANTICS Tonhauser, J., Beaver, D. I., Degen, J. 2018; 35 (3): 495–542

    View details for DOI 10.1093/jos/ffy007

    View details for Web of Science ID 000456050400004

  • Reasoning in Reference Games: Individual-vs. Population-Level Probabilistic Modeling PLOS ONE Franke, M., Degen, J. 2016; 11 (5)


    Recent advances in probabilistic pragmatics have achieved considerable success in modeling speakers' and listeners' pragmatic reasoning as probabilistic inference. However, these models are usually applied to population-level data, and so implicitly suggest a homogeneous population without individual differences. Here we investigate potential individual differences in Theory-of-Mind related depth of pragmatic reasoning in so-called reference games that require drawing ad hoc Quantity implicatures of varying complexity. We show by Bayesian model comparison that a model that assumes a heterogenous population is a better predictor of our data, especially for comprehension. We discuss the implications for the treatment of individual differences in probabilistic models of language use.

    View details for DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0154854

    View details for Web of Science ID 000375676800071

    View details for PubMedID 27149675

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4858259

  • Talker-specificity and adaptation in quantifier interpretation JOURNAL OF MEMORY AND LANGUAGE Yildirim, I., Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K., Jaeger, T. F. 2016; 87: 128-143
  • Talker-specificity and adaptation in quantifier interpretation. Journal of memory and language Yildirim, I., Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K., Jaeger, T. F. 2016; 87: 128-143


    Linguistic meaning has long been recognized to be highly context-dependent. Quantifiers like many and some provide a particularly clear example of context-dependence. For example, the interpretation of quantifiers requires listeners to determine the relevant domain and scale. We focus on another type of context-dependence that quantifiers share with other lexical items: talker variability. Different talkers might use quantifiers with different interpretations in mind. We used a web-based crowdsourcing paradigm to study participants' expectations about the use of many and some based on recent exposure. We first established that the mapping of some and many onto quantities (candies in a bowl) is variable both within and between participants. We then examined whether and how listeners' expectations about quantifier use adapts with exposure to talkers who use quantifiers in different ways. The results demonstrate that listeners can adapt to talker-specific biases in both how often and with what intended meaning many and some are used.

    View details for DOI 10.1016/j.jml.2015.08.003

    View details for PubMedID 26858511

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4742339

  • Availability of Alternatives and the Processing of Scalar Implicatures: A Visual World Eye-Tracking Study. Cognitive science Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K. 2016; 40 (1): 172-201


    Two visual world experiments investigated the processing of the implicature associated with some using a "gumball paradigm." On each trial, participants saw an image of a gumball machine with an upper chamber with orange and blue gumballs and an empty lower chamber. Gumballs dropped to the lower chamber, creating a contrast between a partitioned set of gumballs of one color and an unpartitioned set of the other. Participants then evaluated spoken statements, such as "You got some of the blue gumballs." Experiment 1 investigated the time course of the pragmatic enrichment from some to not all when the only utterance alternatives available to refer to the different sets were some and all. In Experiment 2, the number terms two, three, four, and five were also included in the set of alternatives. Scalar implicatures were delayed relative to the interpretation of literal statements with all only when number terms were available. The results are interpreted as evidence for a constraint-based account of scalar implicature processing.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cogs.12227

    View details for PubMedID 25807866

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4583320

  • Processing Scalar Implicature: A Constraint-Based Approach COGNITIVE SCIENCE Degen, J., Tanenhaus, M. K. 2015; 39 (4): 667-710


    Three experiments investigated the processing of the implicature associated with some using a "gumball paradigm." On each trial, participants saw an image of a gumball machine with an upper chamber with 13 gumballs and an empty lower chamber. Gumballs then dropped to the lower chamber and participants evaluated statements, such as "You got some of the gumballs." Experiment 1 established that some is less natural for reference to small sets (1, 2, and 3 of the 13 gumballs) and unpartitioned sets (all 13 gumballs) compared to intermediate sets (6-8). Partitive some of was less natural than simple some when used with the unpartitioned set. In Experiment 2, including exact number descriptions lowered naturalness ratings for some with small sets but not for intermediate size sets and the unpartitioned set. In Experiment 3, the naturalness ratings from Experiment 2 predicted response times. The results are interpreted as evidence for a Constraint-Based account of scalar implicature processing and against both two-stage, Literal-First models and pragmatic Default models.

    View details for DOI 10.1111/cogs.12171

    View details for Web of Science ID 000353464000001

    View details for PubMedID 25265993

    View details for PubMedCentralID PMC4379146