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Incremental sentence processing is guided by a preference for agents: EEG evidence from Basque


Isasi-Isasmendi, Arrate; Sauppe, Sebastian; Andrews, Caroline; Laka, Itziar; Meyer, Martin; Bickel, Balthasar (2024). Incremental sentence processing is guided by a preference for agents: EEG evidence from Basque. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 39(1):76-97.

Abstract

Comprehenders across languages tend to interpret role-ambiguous arguments as the subject or the agent of a sentence during parsing. However, the evidence for such a subject/agent preference rests on the comprehension of transitive, active-voice sentences where agents/subjects canonically precede patients/objects. The evidence is thus potentially confounded by the canonical order of arguments. Transitive sentence stimuli additionally conflate the semantic agent role and the syntactic subject function. We resolve these two confounds in an experiment on the comprehension of intransitive sentences in Basque. When exposed to sentence-initial role-ambiguous arguments, comprehenders preferentially interpreted these as agents and had to revise their interpretation when the verb disambiguated to patient-initial readings. The revision was reflected in an N400 component in ERPs and a decrease in power in the alpha and lower beta bands. This finding suggests that sentence processing is guided by a top-down heuristic to interpret ambiguous arguments as agents, independently of word order and independently of transitivity.

Abstract

Comprehenders across languages tend to interpret role-ambiguous arguments as the subject or the agent of a sentence during parsing. However, the evidence for such a subject/agent preference rests on the comprehension of transitive, active-voice sentences where agents/subjects canonically precede patients/objects. The evidence is thus potentially confounded by the canonical order of arguments. Transitive sentence stimuli additionally conflate the semantic agent role and the syntactic subject function. We resolve these two confounds in an experiment on the comprehension of intransitive sentences in Basque. When exposed to sentence-initial role-ambiguous arguments, comprehenders preferentially interpreted these as agents and had to revise their interpretation when the verb disambiguated to patient-initial readings. The revision was reflected in an N400 component in ERPs and a decrease in power in the alpha and lower beta bands. This finding suggests that sentence processing is guided by a top-down heuristic to interpret ambiguous arguments as agents, independently of word order and independently of transitivity.

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Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Comparative Language Science
06 Faculty of Arts > Zurich Center for Linguistics
06 Faculty of Arts > Linguistic Research Infrastructure (LiRI)
Dewey Decimal Classification:490 Other languages
890 Other literatures
410 Linguistics
Scopus Subject Areas:Social Sciences & Humanities > Language and Linguistics
Social Sciences & Humanities > Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
Social Sciences & Humanities > Linguistics and Language
Life Sciences > Cognitive Neuroscience
Uncontrolled Keywords:Cognitive Neuroscience, Linguistics and Language, Experimental and Cognitive Psychology, Language and Linguistics
Language:English
Date:2 January 2024
Deposited On:20 Sep 2023 10:44
Last Modified:29 Jun 2024 01:38
Publisher:Taylor & Francis
ISSN:2327-3798
OA Status:Hybrid
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1080/23273798.2023.2250023
  • Content: Published Version
  • Language: English
  • Licence: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0)