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Beyond verb meaning: experimental evidence for incremental processing of semantic roles and event structure

  • We present an event-related potentials (ERP) study that addresses the question of how pieces of information pertaining to semantic roles and event structure interact with each other and with the verb’s meaning. Specifically, our study investigates German verb-final clauses with verbs of motion such as fliegen ‘fly’ and schweben ‘float, hover,’ which are indeterminate with respect to agentivity and event structure. Agentivity was tested by manipulating the animacy of the subject noun phrase and event structure by selecting a goal adverbial, which makes the event telic, or a locative adverbial, which leads to an atelic reading. On the clause-initial subject, inanimates evoked an N400 effect vis-à-vis animates. On the adverbial phrase in the atelic (locative) condition, inanimates showed an N400 in comparison to animates. The telic (goal) condition exhibited a similar amplitude like the inanimate-atelic condition. Finally, at the verbal lexeme, the inanimate condition elicited an N400 effect against the animate condition in the telic (goal) contexts. In the atelic (locative) condition, items with animates evoked an N400 effect compared to inanimates. The combined set of findings suggest that clause-initial animacy is not sufficient for agent identification in German, which seems to be completed only at the verbal lexeme in our experiment. Here non-agents (inanimates) changing their location in a goal-directed way and agents (animates) lacking this property are dispreferred and this challenges the assumption that change of (locational) state is generally a defining characteristic of the patient role. Besides this main finding that sheds new light on role prototypicality, our data seem to indicate effects that, in our view, are related to complexity, i.e., minimality. Inanimate subjects or goal arguments increase processing costs since they have role or event structure restrictions that animate subjects or locative modifiers lack.

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Author:Markus PhilippGND, Tim Graf, Franziska KretzschmarGND, Beatrice PrimusORCiDGND
Parent Title (English):Frontiers in Psychology
Document Type:Article
Year of first Publication:2017
Date of Publication (online):2020/12/09
Tag:N400; agentivity; animacy; event structure; event-related brain potentials (ERP); locative vs. goal adverbial; motion verb; semantic role
GND Keyword:Adverb; Ereignissemantik; Kognitive Linguistik; Psycholinguistik; Thematische Relation; Verb; Wortbedeutung <Semasiologie>
Issue:Article 1806
DDC classes:400 Sprache / 400 Sprache, Linguistik
Open Access?:ja
Linguistics-Classification:Psycholinguistik / Kognitive Linguistik
Licence (English):License LogoCreative Commons - Attribution 4.0 International