The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Invited talk 2/23 - Shayne Sloggett (Northwestern)

Speaker: Shayne Sloggett (Northwestern)
Title: Understanding reflexives: Combining psycholinguistic and theoretical perspectives
Time: Friday, February 23th, 3:30-5pm 
Place: 32-D461

Should evidence from real-time sentence comprehension routines inform our grammatical models? In this talk I present evidence that they should, drawing on recent findings from investigations of on-line reflexive reference resolution. Reflexive pronouns in English are grammatically constrained to refer to local referents which agree with the reflexive’s morphosyntactic features (Chomsky, 1986; Pollard & Sag, 1992; Reinhart & Reuland, 1993; i.a.), and many studies in sentence processing have found that comprehenders initially consider only these referents when determining a reflexive’s antecedent (Nicol & Swinney, 1989; Sturt, 2003; Dillon, Xiang, Dillon, & Phillips, 2009; i.m.a.). However, some recent work has found that comprehenders entertain long-distance reference when local referents present a particularly poor morphosyntactic match (Parker & Phillips, 2017). This raises an interesting question: are such findings the result of a processing mistake, or rooted in grammatical principles? I present evidence from two sets of studies which suggest the latter, demonstrating that native English-speaking comprehenders are less willing to entertain long-distance interpretations in the presence of an indexical (first/second person) pronoun. Notably, this pattern of behavior bears a striking resemblance to the “person blocking” phenomenon associated with the Mandarin long-distance reflexive “ziji” (Huang & Liu, 2001). In light of these findings, I propose a unified treatment of Mandarin and English reflexives which claims that comprehenders consider long-distance referents which could act as logophoric antecedents. Thus, by approaching the study of reflexive reference from theoretical and psycholinguistic perspectives simultaneously, insights from each inform the other. Moreover, this proposal has strong implications for both our understanding of real-time reflexive comprehension, and our grammatical models of reflexive binding. First, it suggests that the adoption of a long-distance interpretation in English does not reflect a processing “error”, but rather the function of a grammatically available, but otherwise dispreferred, alternative (c.f. Parker & Phillips, 2017). Second, it assigns a processing-based explanation to the fact that English speakers generally do not take such interpretations, rather than a grammatical one. Finally, the proposed model is more consistent with a specification of Binding Theory in terms of locality and c-command, rather than predicates, supporting recent theoretical work on French (Charnavel & Sportiche, 2016) which has reached similar conclusions.