Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Processing Modifier-Head Agreement in Reading: Evidence for a Delayed Effect of Agreement

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Processing Modifier-Head Agreement in Reading: Evidence for a Delayed Effect of Agreement

Article excerpt

The present study examined whether type of inflectional case (semantic or grammatical) and phonological and morphological transparency affect the processing of Finnish modifier-head agreement in reading. Readers' eye movement patterns were registered. In Experiment 1, an agreeing modifier condition (agreement was transparent) was compared with a no-modifier condition, and in Experiment 2, similar constructions with opaque agreement were used. In both experiments, agreement was found to affect the processing of the target noun with some delay. In Experiment 3, unmarked and case-marked modifiers were used. The results again demonstrated a delayed agreement effect, ruling out the possibility that the agreement effects observed in Experiments 1 and 2 reflect a mere modifier-presence effect. We concluded that agreement exerts its effect at the level of syntactic integration but not at the level of lexical access.

The term agreement designates the phenomenon in which the same grammatical category (or meaning) is formally marked in two or more words of a clause. Or, schematically, (X - A) + (Y - A), where A is the exponent of a category common to both X and Y. In this way, coherence-both within and between sentence constituents-is explicitly expressed. Considering the central role that agreement plays in the grammatical descriptions of many languages, studying its possible role in online sentence processing is highly warranted and was the main aim of the present study.

Cross linguistically, the most important grammatical categories involved in agreement are number, gender, person, and case. When an agreement construction is represented by (X - A) + (Y - A), then the default assumption is that A expresses a single grammatical category-as in Finnish uus-i-ssa talo-i-ssa ("in [the] new houses")-where -i- = number (i.e., plural) and -ssa = case (i.e., inessive). However, it is often the case that A simultaneously expresses more than one grammatical category-as in Spanish las chic-as guap-as ("the beautiful girls"), where las denotes number (i.e., plural), gender (i.e., feminine), and species (i.e., definite)-or as in Finnish lapse-t juokse-vat ("[the] children are running"), where -t = number (i.e., plural) and case (i.e., nominative), -vat = number (i.e., plural) and person (i.e., third). Finally, the exponents of a given grammatical category need not be formally identical. That is, from the purely formal point of view, agreement can also be exemplified by constructions like (X - A) + (Y - B).

Agreement may appear in many syntactic constructions, such as adjectival modifier-head, possessive modifierhead, adposition-noun, subject-verb, object-verb, subject-predicate nominal, subject/object-participle, and so on. The modifier-head and the subject-verb constructions exemplify agreement within a constituent and between constituents, respectively. In this article, we investigate the reading process as applied to the case and number agreement in Finnish modifier-head constructions. In what follows, unless otherwise specified, the notion of agreement in Finnish will thus be restricted to case and number agreement in modifier-head constructions.

Morphological Features of Finnish

Next, we summarize relevant morphological features that show that Finnish is a suitable language to study casenumber agreement in modifier-head constructions.

Finnish is a morphologically rich language in which case-number agreement is expressed by means of suffixes. There are two numbers-that is, singular and plural-and 15 cases of which approximately 12 are in productive use. Note that up to 70% of words in written text are case inflected.

The phrase-level word order is rigid in Finnish, and the (adjectival) modifier always precedes its head noun, without any intervening words. In addition, the modifier strictly agrees with the case and number of its head noun (see Sulkala & Karjalainen, 1992).

Cases can be placed on a continuum depending on whether the relations they express are concrete or abstract. …

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