Post written by based on an article in Eric Potsdam the latest issue of Journal of Linguistics
In this paper we investigate the the relative cost of processing syntactic versus extra-syntactic dependencies. The results support the hypothesis that syntactic dependencies require less processing effort than discourse-derived dependencies do, as proposed in work by Eric Reuland and Arnout Koornneef. We do this by investigating a novel paradigm in Russian in which a preposed nominal stranding a numeral can show number connectivity (PAUCAL) with a gap following the numeral or can appear in a non-agreeing (PLURAL) form:
(1) a. Sobora-a v gorodke bylo tri sobor-a
cathedral-PAUCAL in town was three.PAUCAL (Connectivity)
b. Sobor-ov v gorodke bylo tri pro
cathedral-PLURAL in town was three.PAUCAL (Non-agreeing form)
Numerous syntactic diagnostics confirm that when there is number connectivity, (1a), the nominal has been fronted via A′-movement, creating a syntactic A′-chain dependency. In the absence of connectivity, (1b), the construction involves a hanging topic related via discourse mechanisms to a base-generated null pronoun, pro. The constructions constitute a syntactic minimal pair in that the structures are nearly the same but the anaphoric dependency ends in different types of elements, a trace/copy versus pro. Reuland’s proposals correctly predict that the A′-movement construction in (1a) will require less processing effort compared to the hanging topic construction in (1b). We conducted a self-paced reading study for contrasting pairs as in (1) and show a statistically significant slow-down after the pro with the hanging topic in (1b) as compared to the moved nominal in (1a). We take this to support the claim that a syntactic A′-chain of movement is more easily processed than an anaphoric dependency involving a null pronoun, which must be resolved by discourse-based mechanisms.
The work can be taken to show that null pronouns and traces are distinct elements in the syntax and hearers process them differently.