This project investigates how speakers of Southwestern Ojibwe use the language's unique grammatical features to understand complex sentences. Southwestern Ojibwe is a revitalizing indigenous language spoken by approximately 5,000 first and second language speakers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Southern Ontario. Its grammar has been researched for decades, but little is known about how speakers produce and understand Ojibwe sentences during normal language comprehension and production. This is the focus of current project. Specifically, this research addresses the question of whether listeners use Ojibwe-specific grammatical cues to make predictions about how the meaning of the sentence will resolve, focusing on what types of information Ojibwe speakers use to identify the grammatical subject of a sentence. This project joins a small but growing body of research that looks at endangered and understudied languages using experimental fieldwork, and expands our understanding of how the cognitive capabilities common to all humans are used to produce and comprehend languages that differ in how their grammar expresses meaning. Furthermore, the results of this research will be shared with the Southwestern Ojibwe-speaking community to bolster language revitalization efforts.

All languages can refer to both living (animate) and non-living (inanimate) entities, and have different ways of conveying the importance of different characters in a story. However, Ojibwe is unique in that these functions play a central role in the grammar of the language. In Ojibwe, nouns get different grammatical markers according to whether they refer to animate or inanimate entities. Furthermore, animate nouns participate in a unique "spotlighting" system. When there are multiple animate nouns in a story, conversation, or discourse, one of them is designated proximate (the character in the spotlight), while all others are marked obviative (the characters outside of the spotlight). Ojibwe further differs from languages like English in that word order does not serve as the primary cue for understanding the meaning of a sentence. Instead, Ojibwe has a complex system where the form of agreement on the verb and the animacy/obviation information on nouns are used together to understand the meaning of a sentence. The proposed study will look at how Ojibwe speakers use these sources of information to understand who is doing a particular action, and who is undergoing an action. Two methods will be employed. First, a language production task, where speakers are given an incomplete sentence preamble and are asked to use it to form a complete sentence, will be used to determine what assumptions speakers make about the grammatical role of ambiguous nouns. Second, a language comprehension task where participants will listen to sentences in Ojibwe while looking at an array of pictures corresponding to different interpretations of the sentence. Participants' eye movements will be recorded to understand how the interpretation of the sentence unfolds and changes over time in response to the input. The proposed study is the first of its kind on Ojibwe, and will be of interest to linguists interested in the cognitive representation of language, and to community members interested in revitalization.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Tyler Kendall
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University of Massachusetts Amherst
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