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Multiple Center-embedding: What's Pronounceable is Comprehensible (talk recording available)

Dr. Janet Fodor

Tuesday, October 15, 2013, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

City University of New York, Graduate Center, Linguistics

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Janet Dean Fodor

CUNY Graduate Center
Joint research with Stefanie Nickels and Esther Schott

The extreme processing difficulty of doubly center-embedded relative clause (2CE-RC) constructions has elicited many proposed explanations over many decades. Improbably, we offer a phonological explanation. We maintain (a) that a sentence can’t be easily parsed if it can’t be assigned a supportive prosodic contour, and (b) that the flat structure of prosodic phrasing is hard to fit to the densely hierarchical structure of a 2CE-RC sentence.

Examples like (1) are cited in the literature; (2) is from an experiment by Gibson & Thomas (1999). Short or long, both are pronounced awkwardly, with ‘list intonation’. Syntactic parsing is so difficult that they are often judged more grammatical when the second VP is (ungrammatically!) omitted, as in (3): this is the “missing VP illusion”. 

(1) The boy the dog the cat scratched bit died.

(2) The ancient manuscript that the grad student who the new card catalog had confused a great
     deal was studying in the library was missing a page.

(3) *The ancient manuscript that the grad student who the new card catalog had confused a great
       deal was missing a page.

We show that the correct nested syntactic structure [NP1 [NP2 [NP3 VP1] VP2 ] VP3] is achievable if prosodic phrasing can package up the center elements [NP2 NP3 VP1 VP2] together. Because of length requirements on prosodic phrases, this is feasible only if the center constituents are all short, and the outer constituents (NP1 and VP3) are long enough to constitute separate prosodic phrases. Experiments confirm that examples like (4) are easier to pronounce and understand than examples like (5), which has the same overall sentence length but has its weight in the wrong places: skinny outer constituents and fat inner ones. (Read them aloud!)

(4) The rusty old ceiling pipes that the plumber my dad trained fixed continue to leak   

(5) The pipes that the unlicensed plumber the new janitor reluctantly assisted tried to repair   

 An explanation is offered on the assumption that syntax-prosody alignment is achieved by syntactic readjustment (Chomsky & Halle 1968, contra Selkirk 2000).


To view a recording of this talk click here (You will need a Rutgers NetID and password)

Dr. Janet Fodor