Research Projects

Maintenance and retrieval in the processing of syntactic dependencies: Evidence from a grammatized resumption language

ISF 216/18

Prof. Aya Meltzer-Asscher

Syntactic dependencies are very common cross-linguistically. One well-studied case is that of filler-gap dependencies, as in “This is the teacher that Mom said that Dan likes”. In this sentence, the filler, the teacher, is interpreted at the gap site, after likes. Comprehension of such dependencies requires use of working memory in order to maintain the filler, or some of its features, throughout the dependency, and/or retrieve it, or some of its features, at the gap site. To date, most research on the memory mechanisms involved in the processing of filler-gap dependencies focused on a small number of languages. In this project we investigate Hebrew, a language with grammaticized resumptive pronouns, which can shed new light on this topic. Resumptive pronouns are pronouns which appear at the tail of the dependency (“This is the teacher that Mom said that Dan likes (him)”), and provide the comprehender with the filler’s agreement features. This property of Hebrew enables us to explore whether these agreement features serve as retrieval cue and to better understand the memory mechanisms operating during sentence processing.


Encoding and retrieval in sentence processing errors: Comparing Hebrew and English 

BSF-NSF 2021719

Prof. Aya Meltzer-Asscher in collaboration with Prof. Brian Dillon, University of Massachusetts

To understand language, we need to relate different, sometimes distant, elements in the sentence. For example, in the sentence “The boy who met the nice neighbors is smiling”, we need to create a dependency between the subject – “the boy” – and the verb “is smiling”. To do that, we need to use intricate memory representations. One of the goals of psycholinguistic research is to characterize the memory mechanisms enabling these processes, and in order to achieve this, it is interesting to observe when, and why, these processes fail. For example, it is well-known that speakers occasionally produce erroneous sentences such as “The boy who met the nice neighbors are smiling”, and comprehenders fail to notice such errors. In this project we investigate the processing of sentences with agreement errors, in Hebrew and in English, in order to understand what causes processing failures – memory encoding or retrieval – and what role the language’s grammar plays in these processes. 


The division of labor between the lexicon and the syntax

ISF 44/05

Prof. Julia Horvath, Prof. Tal Siloni

This project explores the division of labor between the lexicon and the syntax. We have defined a set of diagnostics for determining the component of Grammar in which an operation applies. Using the diagnostics, we examine various verbal and adjectival diatheses in order to shed light on their locus of formation. Our results suggest that among the various operations deriving the different diatheses, some operations are cross-linguistically lexical (e.g., decuastivization). Some are syntactic cross-linguistically (e.g., verbal passive formation), and others are subject to variation across languages (e.g., causativization). An examination of the properties of these operations reveal the fundamental principles that govern their distribution, thereby enabling a better understanding of the workings of each component of Grammar. The results provide support to the active lexicon approach.

Split intransitivity: The case of unaccusatives

Prof. Tal Siloni

Intransitive verbs split into two types, unaccusatives and unergatives; unaccusatives have an internal argument subject and unergatives an external one (Perlmutter 1978). We assume that unaccusativity is syntactically represented but semantically determined (e.g. Levin and Rappaport Hovav 1995). Two main questions lead our research: What determines the set of unaccusatives, or in other words, what determines the merger position of the subject of intransitives? Are the diagnostics suggested for detecting unaccusativity in Hebrew reliable? We use acceptability judgment-tasks to shed more light on both questions.  


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