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Scope Taking, Locality and the Comprehension of wh-in-situ Questions

Ming Xiang
University of Chicago
February 19, 2016 - 3:30pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (460-126)
Much previous processing research has examined wh-fronting languages like English to ask how the indeterminacy of the gap position is resolved in incremental processing of the filler-gap dependency. In this talk, I look at the similarly challenging inverse problem which has received much less attention—how does the parser identify the correct scope position for a wh-in-situ phrase in languages like Mandarin Chinese? First, I show some of the first experimental evidence from online processing—both in eyetracking and production studies—for the long-held assumption in the syntactic literature that a covert syntactic dependency is constructed between the wh-in-situ phrase and its scope position, which in Mandarin has no morpho-phonological reflex on the surface string. Second, I illustrate how we have used eyetracking data to distinguish between two possible mechanisms through which the parser could identify the correct scope position. One possibility is that the parser serially searches through each intermediate CP position until getting to the right scope position. This would predict an across-the-board locality bias, and is consistent with the idea of successive cyclic movement in the theoretical syntax literature. The other possibility is that successful retrieval of the scope position is mediated by simultaneous and parallel access to all CP positions at the same time, which predicts strong locality in some but not all situations. Our findings provide novel support for the second hypothesis. Finally, we investigate the relationship between processing complexity and actual comprehension by zooming in on those cases for which processing complexity is greater for the distant vs. local scope position and probing interpretations. Surprisingly, results from the truth value judgment task show a clear preference for the high scope interpretation even though associating the wh-in-situ phrase with a distant scope position is more costly. I will suggest some possible accounts for this surprising mismatch.


Event Type: 
Linguistics Colloquium