LINGUIST List 13.1641

Mon Jun 10 2002

Diss: Cognitive Sci/Psycholing: Vasishth "Working..."

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. vasishth, Cognitive Sci/Psycholing: Vasishth "Working Memory in Sentence Comprehension..."

Message 1: Cognitive Sci/Psycholing: Vasishth "Working Memory in Sentence Comprehension..."

Date: Fri, 07 Jun 2002 17:39:08 +0000
From: vasishth <>
Subject: Cognitive Sci/Psycholing: Vasishth "Working Memory in Sentence Comprehension..."

New Dissertation Abstract

Institution: Ohio State University
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2002
Author: Shravan Vasishth 
Dissertation Title: 
Working Memory in Sentence Comprehension: Processing Hindi Center Embeddings

Dissertation URL:

Linguistic Field: 
Typology, Semantics, Psycholinguistics, Pragmatics, Cognitive Science

Subject Language: 

Dissertation Director 1: Shari R. Speer
Dissertation Director 2: Richard L. Lewis
Dissertation Director 3: Keith Johnson
Dissertation Director 4: Chris Brew

Dissertation Abstract: 
I used acceptability rating tasks and self-paced reading studies to investigate 
three working memory-based theories' predictions regarding sentence processing 
difficulty in Hindi center-embedding constructions: Hawkins' Early Immediate 
Constituents (EIC), Gibson's Discourse Locality Theory (DLT), and Lewis' 
Retrieval Interference Theory (RIT). Two main issues were investigated: (a) 
the effect of definiteness marking on direct objects; and (b) the effect of 
increasing head-dependent distance. First, definite-marked direct objects 
were found to be harder to process than bare (indefinite) direct objects, 
contra EIC, and contra DLT. I argue that, due to discourse constraints, 
indefinites are harder to process when they are in subject position, whereas 
definites are harder to process in the direct-object position. Second, 
regarding distance between heads and dependents, distance was manipulated in 
two distinct ways: (a) by fronting indirect objects, and by fronting direct 
objects in center embeddings like `siitaa-ne hari-ko kitaab khariid-neko 
kahaa', ``Sita told Hari to buy a book'' ; and (b) by inserting an adverb 
between the final NP and the innermost verb in canonical order center 
embeddings. One finding was that if distance is increased between heads 
and dependents by reordering the dependents ((a) above), processing becomes 
more difficult, as predicted by EIC and DLT, and contra RIT. However, 
processing is, suprisingly, easier when distance is increased between the 
head and its dependents by inserting an adverb between them ((b) above). 
This goes against EIC, DLT, and RIT's predictions. I explain these results 
as follows: fronting indirect or direct objects renders them more similar to 
subjects (since fronted objects are in a typical subject position), causing 
increased similarity-based interference between the actual subject and the 
fronted object; by contrast, the easier processing due to adverb insertion 
occurs because the adverb strengthens the activation level of the current 
hypothesis (in working memory) regarding the sentence completion. In 
sum, EIC, DLT, and RIT are only partly able to correctly characterize 
important cross-linguistic aspects of human sentence parsing. This 
incomplete coverage of the empirical results motivates a new, more general 
model of human sentence parsing that correctly accounts for reading-time 
and acceptability rating data from four languages.
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