The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Jabberwocky Words In Linguistics Workshop Feb 11-12 UMass & UniBuc

Jabberwocky Words in Linguistics:

 Making Sense through Nonsense.  Making Sense of Nonsense.


“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't.  And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?"

-Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

“Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense.”

-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value


The current workshop aims at bringing into focus research which sheds light on linguistic structures/phenomena by means of non-existent words. The workshop welcomes research making use of possible nonce words, i.e., words which happen not to be part of the current language but could potentially exist (such as blick in The man blicked yesterday). Previous experimental work has used nonce words to investigate how children acquire language. In particular, nonce words have been employed to investigate the syntactic bootstrapping hypothesis, according to which children use syntactic cues to get to the meaning of words. The hypothesis originates as early as 1957, when Roger Brown showed experimentally that preschool-aged children could use their knowledge of different parts of speech to distinguish the meaning of nonsense words in English (Do you see any/ a sib?, What is sibbing?). Later, Gleitman (1990) coined the term syntactic bootstrapping, and further on stressed the importance of syntactic cues in acquisition. Interesting experimental work further ensued (Naigles, 1990; Soja, 1992; Höhle et al., 2004; Cristophe et al., 2008; Syrrett et. al., 2010; Yuan & Fisher, 2012; Jin & Fisher, 2014; He & Lidz, 2017; Cao & Lewis, 2021; Huang et al., 2021; a.o.): to elaborate on one influential work, Naigles (1990) showed by means of a (video-based) eye-tracking paradigm that 2-year-olds who hear The duck is kradding the rabbit interpreted kradding as the act of the duck pushing on the rabbit, whereas 2-year-olds who hear The duck and the rabbit are kradding interpret kradding as the act of both animals doing something (arm waving). The nonce paradigm has the advantage of eliminating lexical biases created by existent words in the lexicon, and, instead, isolating the issue of interest. In addition to their relevance for the acquisition of (lexical) semantics, nonce words have also been employed to investigate the acquisition of morphology. The famous Wug Test, created by Jean Berko Gleason in 1958 and replicated multiple times, used nonce words to explore children’s acquisition of plural morphology (one wug-two wugs), possessives (wug’s, wugs’) and verbal morphology (He zibs). We are interested in recent experimental work which uses nonce words as a tool to investigate the acquisition of lexical and functional items.

Apart from employing novel words within an existing language, another method which has become a useful tool in exploring linguistic universals is artificial language learning: participants have to learn a novel artificial grammar, and their perfomance can give useful information about innate linguistic biases (Culbertson, Smolensky, & Legendre, 2012; Ettlinger, Bradlow, & Wong, 2014; Finley & Badecker, 2009; a.o.). For instance, Culbertson et al. (2012, 2015, 2017, 2020) have shown that child and adult learners are biased in favor of harmonic word patterns (either prenominal harmonic orders like Adj N, Num N or postnominal harmonic orders like N Adj, N Num), and that this bias holds even when learner’s native language is non-harmonic (like French or Hebrew, which are N Adj, Num N). We thus also welcome papers making use of artificial language learning to investigate linguistic principles.

Other areas of interest for the workshop involve novel words which are used spontaneously by certain individual speakers such as novel denominal verbs like to giraffe (Clark & Clark 1979; Hale & Keyser 2002; Harley 2005), novel compound coinages like pony-kid or angel-cake (Clark 1993) or impossible words which can simply not exist in the language (such as *faller or *dier, for instance), given certain structural constraints which limit the domain of creativity (Roeper, 1987).

We welcome experimental papers employing nonce words within various methodologies (act-out tasks, truth value judgment tasks, eye-tracking, story-telling, artificial language learning, a.o.) to investigate certain linguistic phenomena/structures (first and second language acquisition, language processing, online and offline methodological issues, a.o.). We also welcome corpus and theoretical work which provides new insight into how novel words are created and what this can tell us about the linguistic mechanisms people make use of.

We invite abstracts for 30-minute talks (with a 10-minute discussion included). Abstracts should be no longer than 500 words in a font size no less than 12pt, with an additional page including examples, figures and references. Abstracts should be anonymous. Contact details (author’s name and affiliation) and the title of the presentation should be included in the accompanying email.

Please send your abstract (PDF format) to and

Important Dates:

Deadline for abstract submission: January 3, 2022 (extended to 20th)

Notification of acceptance: January 20, 2022 (extended to 31st)

Workshop: February 11-12, 2022


Invited speakers (in alphabetical order):

Eve Clark (Stanford University)

Jennifer Culbertson (University of Edinburgh) and Alexander Martin (Université de Paris)

Anouk Dieuleveut (LLF, Université de Paris), Ailís Cournane (New York University) and Valentine Hacquard (University of Maryland)

Brian Dillon (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Jon Burnsky (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Heidi Harley (University of Arizona)

Jeff Lidz (University of Maryland)

Letitia Naigles (University of Connecticut)

Emma Nguyen (University of California, Irvine)

Gillian Ramchand (UiT The Arctic University of Norway)

Tom Roeper (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Kristen Syrett (Rutgers University)

Lyn Tieu (Western Sydney University)


Schedule of Event: Click Here  

Zoom Link for Event: Click Here


Organizers: Adina Camelia Bleotu (University of Bucharest), Deborah Foucault Etheridge (UMass Amherst) 


This workshop is supported by a UEFISCDI (PN-III-P1-1.1-PD-2019-0472) grant on Experimental Insights into Denominals and Creativity (XIDenCre) awarded to Adina Camelia Bleotu during the academic period 1 September 2020 - 28 February 2022.

UMass and University of Bucharest Team up for Recursion Conference

The University of Bucharest and the University of Massachusetts Amherst will team up this June 1-2 for two days filled with workshops and current research on recursion.  Organized by Adina Camelia Bleotu of Unibuc and Deborah Foucault of UMass, the online workshop entitled “Recursion Across Languages: The Intricacies of Babel” aims at bringing into discussion recent theoretical and experimental research on recursive structures across languages.  Keynote speaker will be Dr. Tom Roeper from the LInguisitics Department and Director of the Language Acquisition Lab UMass Amherst. 

Conference Website can be found here.

Details on the call for abstracts can be found here.

UMass at BUCLD 40

Michael Clauss and Jeremy Hartmann will give a presentation entitled “Syntactic Cues in Adjective Learning” at the 40th  Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) on Friday, November 13 at 10 am.

Barbara Pearson, Tom  Roeper, and Anca Sevcenco will also present a poster at BUCLD on Friday entitled “The Acquisition of Recursive Locative Prepositional Phrases and  Relative Clauses in Child English on Friday.

For more information on the conference, including the full schedule for the conference, please visit


Welcome to the Language Acquisition Lab in the Department of Linguistics at UMass Amherst! We study how children acquire language, including first, second, and bilingual acquisition. Our experiments explore the questions generated by core areas of linguistic theory, including syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. The results, in turn, shape those theories and inform our understanding of language and the human mind.

Our studies have been conducted in languages such as Japanese, Tamil, Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English. Some of our work was highlighted in The Human Language Series, a national PBS special on language.

Although the primary focus of our lab is experimental research, our results have been used to benefit children at various stages of development, educators, speech pathologists, and others involved with language issues. We collaborated with other departments to develop a diagnostic test for disorders (DELV, Pearson Assessments, 2003, 2005) that is currently being used with children across the US. For more information on interdisciplinary projects and collaborations with the Five Colleges, please visit the Language Acquisition Research Center (LARC).