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Slide Slam M12

Licensing at the interfaces of syntax, semantics and pragmatics: Theta-band oscillations reflect low semantic value of discourse particles

Slide Slam Session M, Thursday, October 7, 2021, 6:00 - 8:00 am PDT Log In to set Timezone

Mariya Kharaman1, Anna Czypionka1, Carsten Eulitz1; 1University of Konstanz

Linguistic licensing at the interfaces of syntax, semantics and pragmatics allows insights into the interplay of different components of grammar and their interactions with other cognitive systems like working memory during sentence comprehension. We present data from a series of experiments on the licensing of question-sensitive discourse particles (QDiPs) like German denn (lit. ‘then’). QDiPs must be licensed by a c-commanding [+Q(uestion)]-operator or wh-trace. They enrich the pragmatic impact of their surrounding clause type, and are subject to syntactic and semantic constraints, but have little semantic value of their own. We link findings from behavioral and ERP studies to an analysis of oscillatory brain activity for interface licensing of QDiPs in comparison to a non-QDiP baseline (the temporal adverb jetzt, ‘now’). In our stimuli, the QDiP denn occurred either (1) in the root clause of an interrogative (with accessible licenser; Wer hat den Kuchen aus der Bäckerei denn aufgegessen?, ‘Who QDiP ate the cake from the bakery?’), (2) in the embedded clause of an interrogative (with inaccessible licenser; *Wer hat gesagt, dass die Oma den Kuchen denn aufessen muss?, ‘Who said that the granny should QDiP eat the cake?’), or (3) in root or embedded clauses of a declarative (without licenser; *Robert hat den Kuchen aus der Bäckerei denn aufgegessen., ‘Robert QDiP ate the cake from the bakery.’). Each condition was compared to a well-formed baseline condition containing the temporal adverb jetzt (‘now’) instead of denn. Denn without licenser (3) leads to a drop in acceptability ratings and an enhanced P600 effect. Denn with inaccesible licenser (2) leads to only a mild drop in acceptability, and an enhanced, albeit shorter P600 effect. This latter finding might reflect either an alternative pragmatic licensing pathway for denn, or a previously undescribed linguistic illusion. The oscillatory brain activity showed an increase in theta-band activity for jetzt relative to denn. Given the higher semantic value of the temporal adverb jetzt relative to the semantically weak QDiP denn, this supports previous observations that the integration of the words with little semantic value or closed class words does not result in theta increase. At the same time, licensing violations eliciting P600 in ERP analysis did not lead to increases in theta-band activity. As theta-band activity is also linked to the processing of semantic and syntactic violations, memory-retrieval operations and working-memory load, our findings suggest that neither purely syntactic or semantic violations nor memory-retrieval costs play a major role in detecting QDiP licensing violations. Results also fit behavioral findings suggesting that unexpectedly good ratings for denn with inaccessible licensers (2) reflect alternative pragmatic licensing strategies, rather than a linguistic illusion involving memory-retrieval errors. In sum, our results support interpretations of oscillatory theta band activity reflecting semantic value differences. They also support behavioral findings against a prominent role of memory-retrieval errors during the QDiPs licensing and suggest that less-than-well-formed sentences can be interpreted thanks to alternative pragmatic licensing strategies. This contributes to our understanding of licensing at the interfaces of syntax, semantics and pragmatics.

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