I know what you're probably going to say: Listener adaptation to variable use of uncertainty expressions
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 provides evidence against accounts that cast adaptation as simple low-level priming.