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Completed research project

Title / Titel Ergativity in comprehension and production: language typology and processing
PDF Abstract (PDF, 14 KB)
Summary / Zusammenfassung Research on the distribution of grammatical structures in the world (language typology) suggests that certain structures are preferred because they fit better with the strategies employed by the language processing system in the brain (e.g. Hawkins 2004, Christiansen & Chater 2008). While methodological advances now allow for a detailed analysis of distributional preferences in time and space (e.g. Cysouw 2011, Bickel 2011), a continuing challenge relates to the assumed universality of the relevant processing conditions. Experimental evidence tends to be limited to a few European languages, with similar structures (Jaeger & Norcliffe 2009). The present project addresses this challenge by focusing on one promising candidate of a processing universal that also appears to be correlated with a distributional preference: the anti-ergative bias, also known as the ‘subject preference’.
This bias lets the comprehension system interpret unmarked sentence-initial noun phrases as the sole (S) argument of intransitives or as agents (A) of transitives. When the sentence completion demands reanalysis of the initial NP as a patient (P), this elicits various reanalysis effects (e.g. in terms of event-related brain potentials, ERPs; see Wang et al. 2009 for a survey). A possible explanation is that A arguments involve less and less complex dependencies than P arguments, hence representing a simpler option (Primus 1999, Bornkessel-Schlesewsky & Schlesewsky 2009). The bias is well-established for several languages and persists across various information-structural and semantic conditions (Wang et al. 2009). If truly universal, the bias would explain why case systems tend to favor unmarked NPs to cover S and A (‘accusative’) rather than S and P (‘ergative’) (Bickel et al. 2015).
What needs urgent research is the extent to which the anti-ergative bias is universal and persists under unfavorable grammar conditions, i.e. when a language has ergative case alignment and/or prefers P-initial sentences. Does the anti-ergative bias persist or does the system adapt to the demands of language-specific structures (Jaeger & Norcliffe 2009, Sauppe et al. 2013, Norcliffe et al. 2015, Koizumi et al. 2014)? There is so far only one study on Hindi addressing this question, a language with a mix of ergative and accusative patterns (Choudhary et al. 2010). Also, it is unclear whether the anti-ergative bias is limited to comprehension or extends to production. This issue is critical because any effect of the anti-ergative bias as a processing constraint on typological distributions would have to be located in language change, and this in turn requires that reanalysis patterns in comprehension also leave traces in production, or, indeed, are driven by production (MacDonald 2013).
The present project aims to address these questions by a series of production and comprehension experiments. We start by completing the research on Hindi and then move to a radically ergative language, Basque, and to an ergative language with frequent P-Verb-A orders, Tuvaluan. We will use EEG methods for comprehension, specifically ERPs and time-frequency analyses. For production, we will combine EEG frequency measurements before articulation (power analysis) with eye-tracking before and during articulation (fixation patterns). If the anti-ergative bias is universal, we expect it to manifest itself in reanalysis-related ERP signals when participants parse sentences with unmarked initial NPs that turn out to express a P function. If the bias holds for production, we expect production planning under ergative conditions to be more complex (and show increased ERP effects and more distributed fixations): if the first NP to be produced is P, this opens up more dependencies than if it is A, and if it is S or A, the speaker needs to decide on the transitivity of the clause (A vs. S) for the purposes of case marking. This requires more advanced planning at the outset of production.
Publications / Publikationen Choudhary, K. K. 2010. Incremental argument interpretation in a split ergative language:neurophysiological evidence from Hindi University of Leipzig dissertation.
Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I. & M. Schlesewsky. 2009. Processing syntax and morphology: a neurocognitive perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, I. & M. Schlesewsky. 2013. Reconciling time, space and function: a new dorsal–ventral stream model of sentence comprehension. Brain and Language 125. 60–76.
Demiral, Ş., M. Schlesewsky & I. Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2008. On the universality of language comprehension strategies: evidence from Turkish. Cognition 106. 484–500.
Haupt, F. S., M. Schlesewsky, D. Roehm, A. D. Friederici & I. Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2008. The status of subject-object reanalyses in the language comprehension architecture. Journal of Memory andLanguage 59. 54–96.
Sauppe, S., E. Norcliffe, A. E. Konopka, R. D. Van Valin & S. C. Levinson. 2013. Dependencies First: Eye Tracking Evidence from Sentence Production in Tagalog. In Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 1265–1270.Norcliffe, E., A. E. Konopka, P. Brown & S. C. Levinson. 2015. Word order affects the time-courseof sentence formulation in Tzeltal. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience 30, 1187-1208
Choudhary, K. K., M. Schlesewsky, B. Bickel & I. Bornkessel-Schlesewsky. 2010. An Actor-preference in a split-ergative language: Electrophysiological evidence from Hindi. Poster presented at 23rd Annual CUNY Conference on Human Sentence Processing.

Bickel, Balthasar; Witzlack-Makarevich, Alena; Choudhary, Kamal K; Schlesewsky, Matthias; Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Ina (2015). The neurophysiology of language processing shapes the evolution of grammar: evidence from case marking. PLoS ONE, 10(8):e0132819.

Stoll, Sabine; Bickel, Balthasar (2012). How to measure frequency? Different ways of counting ergatives in Chintang (Tibeto-Burman, Nepal) and their implications. In: Seifart, Frank; Haig, Geoffrey L J; Himmelmann, Nikolaus P; Jung, Dagmar; Margetts, Anna; Trilsbeek, Paul; Wittenburg, Peter. Potentials of language documentation: methods, analyses, utilization. Manoa: University of Hawai‘i Press, 84-90.

Bickel, Balthasar (2011). Grammatical relations typology. In: Song, Jae Jung. The Oxford Handbook of Language Typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 399 - 444.

Stoll, Sabine; Bickel, Balthasar (2013). The acquisition of ergative case in Chintang. In: Stoll, Sabine; Bavin, Edith. The acquisition of ergativity. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 183-207.

Wang, Luming; Schlesewsky, Matthias; Bickel, Balthasar; Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Ina (2009). Exploring the nature of the `subject'-preference: evidence from the online comprehension of simple sentences in Mandarin Chinese. Language And Cognitive Processes, 24(7-8):1180 - 1226.

Project leadership and contacts /
Projektleitung und Kontakte
Prof. Dr. Balthasar Bickel (Project Leader)
Funding source(s) /
Unterstützt durch
SNF (Personen- und Projektförderung)
In collaboration with /
In Zusammenarbeit mit
Prof. Dr. Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, School of Psychology,
U. South Australia, Adelaide
Prof. Dr. Kamal Choudhary, Indian Institute of Technology, Ropar India
Prof. Dr. Itziar Laka, Department of Linguistics and Basque Studies, University of the Basque Country Spain
Prof. Dr. Steven Levinson and Dr. Elizabeth Norcliffe, Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen Netherlands
Prof. Dr. Ian Kirk and Prof. Dr. Quentin Atkinson, School of Psychology, University of Auckland New Zealand
Duration of Project / Projektdauer Feb 2016 to Mar 2019