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Rapid use of thematic roles knowledge to anticipate event participants

Dr. Julie Boland

Tuesday, March 29, 2005, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Departments of Psychology and Linguistics

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A fairly recent tradition within psycholinguistics has clearly established that people look at objects/participants as they are mentioned. This finding hold over both instruction-following tasks (�Point to the X�) and passive listening paradigms (�The  boy ate the X�). Thus, the paradigm has been used to investigate issues in syntactic ambiguity resolution and lexical access. Interestingly, listeners often look at objects prior to explicit mention, apparently using verb argument structure to anticipate event participants.  This allows us to use the paradigm to investigate how verb meaning is accessed and used during the comprehension of spoken sentences.

I will present two experiments in which we measured the probability of looking at a picture representing a potential argument, after verb onset, but before the argument was explicitly mentioned. Experiment 1 investigated whether the anticipatory looks were due to semantic entailments or probability of mention. I compared transitive-biased and intransitive-biased verbs for which the semantic structure always entailed a theme (e.g., food is entailed by �John ate.�). Transitive and intransitive bias conditions produced an equally high proportion of anticipatory looks to a potential theme, compared to an intransitive control, supporting the semantic entailments hypothesis. Experiment 2 examined how linguistic context disambiguates verb meaning. The critical verbs (e.g. �pass�) had both a three argument meaning (X passed Z the Y) and a two argument meaning (X passed Y). Listeners made anticipatory looks to a potential recipient only in linguistic contexts that supported the three-argument meaning. I discuss how listeners build semantic representations incrementally, using verb argument structure, and the syntactic/semantic interface.

Dr. Julie Boland