In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Experimental Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Experimental Phonetics and Phonology
  • Experimental Syntax
  • Experimental Pragmatics
  • The Psychological Reality of Grammar
  • The Strong Competence Hypothesis
  • Corpus Studies and Psycholinguistic Experiments
  • The Relevance of Quantitative Methods in Syntax and Semantics Research

Linguistics Experimental Linguistics
Barbara Hemforth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0112


Experimental linguistics is about studying theories of linguistic representations based on quantitative evidence. This evidence can be experimental in its strict sense or derived from text corpora. In any case, the validity of the hypotheses has to be tested using inferential statistics in order to draw general conclusions from a random sample of participants or linguistic expressions, or both. While an experimental approach has been more or less standard in phonetics, and a little more recently in phonology, it is now proving to be more and more useful in morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Experimental linguistics evidently overlaps strongly with psycholinguistics in approaching linguistic phenomena with experimental methods, and a considerable amount of the research that has been published in psycholinguistics is central to the research questions expressed in experimental linguistics. There is however a difference with respect to the major research perspective: psycholinguistics focuses on general principles of processing, and general cognitive mechanisms such as working memory constraints or executive functions play an important role. Experimental linguistics is mostly concerned with linguistic representation and with the constraints, which license variations of linguistic expressions. Whether or not this is a useful distinction is the basis for some debate in the framework of performance grammars. A substantial relation to quantitative linguistics can also be observed, in that testing of mathematically precise models with large-scale corpora or psychological experiments both are central to experimental linguistics. While quantitative work has been at the heart of experimental phonetics for more than seventy years, it took at least twenty more years to start thinking of experimental confirmation of linguistic hypotheses in Experimental Syntax. Experimental linguistics finds some of its roots in research on the “psychological reality of grammar,” which started in the 1960s. Important background for experimental linguistics can also be found in the development of performance-oriented grammars based on variants of the strong competence hypothesis. Research methods specially adapted to experimental linguistics have been developed and refined in recent years, thus overcoming some of the obstacles for using data-intensive approaches to complex linguistic questions. There is evidently some debate on the question of in how far empirical evidence beyond the intuition of well-trained linguists is necessary and useful for the development of linguistic theories. In the end, the debate amounts to a question posed by Jerry Fodor in 1981: What is it for a linguistic theory to be true of the speakers of a language? Or more concretely: Do experiments or large-scale corpus analyses enhance the reliability of linguistic theories?

General Overviews

Experimental approaches have been proposed for different subfields of linguistics, with a very long tradition in experimental phonetics and phonology and a more recent one in experimental (morpho-)syntax/semantics/pragmatics. Since Experimental Phonetics and Phonology is mostly covered in separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on Phonology, Acoustic Phonetics, and Articulatory Phonetics, only some basic foundational work is covered here. Most of what will be presented concentrates on the more recent developments in (morpho-)syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Although there is no textbook on experimental linguistics published to date, several edited volumes give overviews of the role of experimental research in the different subfields of linguistics. These volumes are particularly interesting for researchers looking for applications of the experimental approach in general. Eddington 2009 is probably closest to an introduction to the field that can easily be used in advanced classes. A variety of research methods as well as their relevance for research questions from different areas in linguistics are discussed, without demanding too much general knowledge of the respective subfield. Kepser and Reis 2005 includes papers that are often more oriented to concrete research questions. They do, however, all address the central question of which kinds of data are useful and needed for linguistic theories. Some of the chapters can be very useful for advanced courses on experimental linguistics. Prideaux 1979 has mainly been included for historical reasons, although it is somewhat less coherent than the two other volumes. It certainly shows that the relevance of the experimental approach for linguistics has been under discussion for quite a while now, even beyond experimental phonetics.

  • Eddington, David, ed. 2009. Quantitative and Experimental Linguistics. Munich: Lincom.

    The different chapters in this volume give an introduction to research methods and models in experimental linguistics for different linguistic domains. The preface by David Eddington provides an insightful line of argumentation on linguistic and psychological realities.

  • Kepser, Stephan, and Marga Reis. 2005. Linguistic evidence: Empirical, theoretical, and computational perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110197549

    This volume presents a selection of papers from a workshop on experimental linguistics held in Tübingen in 2004. The authors share the sentiment that a variety of data sources, from introspection to neurolinguistic data, is central to linguistic theory building. A majority of the papers discuss concrete research questions, mostly on morphology, syntax, or semantics, combining different data types.

  • Prideaux, Gary Dean, ed. 1979. Perspectives in Experimental Linguistics: Papers from the University of Alberta Conference on Experimental Linguistics, Edmonton, 13–14 Oct. 1978. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    This volume shows that the general goal of experimental linguistics, widening the database for theoretical linguistics, is not as recent as some may think.

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