The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Linguistics Colloquium 10/26 - Sun-Ah Jun

Speaker: Sun-Ah Jun (UCLA)
Date/Time: Friday 10/26, 3:30 – 5pm
Location: 32-141
Title: Prosodic Priming in Relative Clause Attachment


In a sentence such as “Someone shot the servant of the actress who was on the balcony”, the relative clause (RC) can modify NP1 the servant (i.e., high attachment) or NP2 the actress (low attachment). Although the details of attachment preference are language-specific (Fodor 1998, Fernández 2003) it is known that, cross-linguistically, attachment decisions are sensitive to the length of the RC. This fact has been used to support the Implicit Prosody Hypothesis (IPH; Fodor 1998, 2002), which claims that the implicit prosody associated with a syntactic structure influences attachment. It predicts that speakers and listeners favor low attachment when the RC forms a single prosodic phrase with NP2, but that they favor high attachment when there is a prosodic break before the RC. However, studies testing this prediction based on an out-of-the-blue reading (e.g., Jun 2010) suggest that examining overt prosody may not be a suitable way to evaluate implicit prosody.

In this talk, I will provide new evidence supporting the role of prosody in the resolution of RC attachment by showing that prosodic priming, varied in the location of prosodic boundary and played auditorily, influences attachment decisions in the silent reading of a target sentence. That is, auditory primes with late boundary, (NP1 NP2)//(RC), triggered more high attachment and auditory primes with early boundary triggered more low attachment compared to the those with no boundary (control). However, this pattern was found only for subjects with prominent “autistic”-like traits, in particular, those with poorer communication skills. This result is rather surprising given the prosodic deficits usually associated with autism spectrum conditions (e.g. Diehl & Berkovits 2010). I will explore the hypothesis that this finding is related to individual differences in prosodic strategies for disambiguating the relevant syntactic structures. The results of the study broadly support the IPH, but suggest a more complex picture of the relevant prosodic representations of the target structure and individual differences in interpreting their salience.