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Review of  Processing Syntax and Morphology

Reviewer: Phaedra Royle
Book Title: Processing Syntax and Morphology
Book Author: Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky Matthias Schlesewsky
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 22.29

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AUTHORS: Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Matthias Schlesewsky
TITLE: Processing Syntax and Morphology
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Surveys in Syntax and Morphology
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2009

Phaedra Royle, École d'orthophonie et d'audiologie Université de Montréal


This book is intended for knowledgeable audiences interested in neuroimaging
techniques used for the study of syntax and morphology. However, deep knowledge
of neuroimaging techniques is not a prerequisite for the understanding of the
book’s contents. In fact, since most of the chapters are relatively short and
present research reviews, the book is also appropriate for third year
undergraduate courses in neuro- and psycholinguistics. The linguistic
background necessary for the book is quite advanced, as many of the discussions
involve complex combinations of factors that could influence the processing of
syntax. These include, among other things, thematic roles, valency, animacy,
cleft structures, subcategorization, garden path sentences, A vs. A-bar
movement, intonation phrase and more.

The monograph contains 16 chapters and is divided into four parts, an
introduction and methodological section, as well as a number of other sections
(prefaces, lists, references, indices). The first chapters establish the
structure of the book and background (methodological prerequisites) so that the
readers have the necessary knowledge about the research techniques reported on
throughout the book. Chapters 3-6 (Part I) present studies of ''Syntax and
Morphology at the Word Level'', Chapters 7 through 12 (Part II) present data on
''Syntax and Morphology in Sentence Processing'', and Chapters 13 and 14 (Part
III) present data on ''Syntax and Morphology at the Interfaces''. In Part IV
(Chapters 15 and 16), ''Neurocognitive Models of Language Processing'' (including
the authors' model ''The Extended Argument Dependency Model'') are discussed in
turn, and future directions for research are suggested.


Bornkessel-Schlesewsky and Schlesewsky (hereafter B-S & S) present a review of
the research in brain imaging pertaining to morphological structure and
syntactic processing with a particular focus on the processing of complex
relations such as relational (argument) structure, information structure and
complex structure such as relative clauses.

This book is very well written and contains few editorial flaws. More
importantly, the authors present research and theoretical concepts from the
neurosciences in a manner that is quite transparent and accessible. In most
cases where they present a new concept, or one that might need to be explained
to less knowledgeable audiences, they do not assume reader background knowledge.
For example, when discussing the ''inverse problem'' (p. 5) (that is the fact that
one can predict EEG activity as measured on the scalp surface if we know the
source of activity, but not the opposite, that is, we cannot know the source of
brain activity from scalp surface measures) that is always present in
electroencephalographic (EEG) and other brain activity measures, the authors
clearly define the problem and discuss its implications for data interpretation.
This is in fact quite rare in neuroimaging texts, and the first time I have
encountered such a clear presentation of issues.

For the most part, the chapters are presented in a succinct fashion, going over
the major findings in specific domains of neurolinguistic research. This makes
them quite easy to read -- some are only five pages long -- and usable in a
course setting. However, I think that in a teaching setting, one would probably
find advantage in adding to the chapters with some critical thinking from some
other authors, or by reading one of the cited research articles, to get a more
in-depth view of the questions addressed. Sometimes the chapters can feel a bit
''thin'' in terms of content. For example, it has long been a tradition in
neurolinguistics to compare the processing of verbs and nouns, and a chapter
(''Chapter 3: Basic categories: The noun-verb distinction'') reviews the issues.
The chapter is only 6 pages long, which is quite short, considering the large
amount of data that has been brought to bear on this question. B-S & S conclude
the chapter with the following remarks: ''These results indicate that, rather
than being due to inherent categorial differences, the neurocognitive
distinction between nouns and verbs may be crucially influenced by inflectional
morphology and the potential relation role of the words being processed'' (p.
45). This may in fact be true, but there is a strong debate surrounding this
question and no reference to further readings are given. A good example would
have been Shapiro and Caramazza (2004), who address this issue and argue,
presenting modality specific (reading, writing) deficits for inflectional
morphemes on verbs and nouns in single patient case studies, that ''syntactic
category knowledge is represented independently of [age of acquisition,
frequency, concreteness, and inflectional productivity] variables, and that
access to words of different syntactic categories can be spared or impaired
selectively […].'' (p. 804). Thus a presentation of further readings might be
helpful departure points from the shorter (and even longer) chapters.

One goal of this monograph is to present B-S & S's model for syntactic
processing: ''The Extended Argument Dependency Model'' or eADM. This model has the
merit of being based on data from a number of well-designed experiments on the
processing of syntax in a variety of languages (e.g. Hindi/Urdu, Turkish,
Japanese), still quite rare in neuroimaging, where the majority of studies have
been carried out in German, Dutch or English. Thus the strongest chapters in
this book focus on the issues that are directly relevant to this model. These
chapters are also the most complex in terms of the sheer amount of data
presented and are unbalanced with respect others such as Chapter 3 discussed
above. However, these are also the chapters that are the most interesting, as
they present issues that are presently hot topics in the ERP literature in
sentence processing. For example, Chapter 9, ''Relational Structure'' presents
data on the interaction between the processing of syntax and thematic structure,
but also other factors that seem to come into play in online language
processing, such as word order and animacy, and is 60 pages long.

Returning to the eADM, the authors allude to it at various points in the
monograph, while not clearly naming it, which creates a bit of confusion in the
reader. For example, in Chapter 9, B-S & S indicate that ''[argument order
reanalysis] might be explained […] by assuming that the relative ordering of
subject and object in simple sentences does not affect the phrase structure'' and
refer to an article by themselves ''and Chapter 15.4 for a processing model
incorporating this assumption.'' (p. 184). Earlier, in ''Chapter 11, they refer to
the concept of ''generalized mapping'' and cite again one of their publications
without clearly explaining the concept (''a process which serves to map
peripheral information onto properties of the core'') (p. 215). It thus seems
that the authors are a bit shy about explaining their own concepts, and do not
directly make links to the final chapters where they explicitly present these
within the context of the model.

Chapter 15, ''Neurocognitive models of language comprehension'' presents four
models, three quite well known, as well as their own. B-S & S thus discuss ''The
declarative/procedural'' model (Ullman, 2004), the ''Memory Unification and
Control (MUC) model'' (Hagoort, 2005) and Friederici's hierarchical syntax-first
model (2002), before presenting their own. They discuss issues relating to these
models: in what context they were developed, what they try to account for, and
what testable hypotheses they have for neurocognitive processing of syntax. Here
we focus on the eADM. This model was developed in part to provide a
cross-linguistic neurocognitive account of syntactic processing and is
formulated in terms of hierarchies or preferences. Its essence is derived from
Friederici's model, in that it is a hierarchical model, but it assumes
relational structure encoding similar to that of, for example, Culicover &
Jackendoff, (2005). In their model:

''arguments are ranked hierarchically and assigned generalized semantic roles
(Actor and Undergoer). This […] is derived with reference to a set of
cross-linguistically motivated information types (termed ''prominence
information'') and their language-specific weightings as specified in the
interface hypothesis of incremental argument interpretation [… which] is
accomplished by the syntax-semantics interface, i.e. with reference to a
cross-linguistically defined set of prominence scales and their language
specific weighting. The relevant prominence scales are:
a. morphological case marking (nominative >accusative/ergative>nominative)
b. argument order (argument 1 > argument 2)
c. animacy (+ animate > -animate)
d. definiteness/specificity (+definite/specific > -definite/specific)
e. person (1st/2nd person > 3rd person)'' (p. 289).

B-S & S thus present a model that can putatively account for different linking
effects across languages. One of its strengths is that it can make explicit
predictions and be tested in a number of ways, with different linguistic
phenomena. It is a serial-hierarchical model because it stipulates that word
category information is necessary in the identification of possible arguments
within the structure, before the mapping of arguments to syntactic roles
specified by the verb. In addition, an intermediate step of argument linking
with predicative elements (e.g., verbs) and prominence computation with
non-predicating structures (e.g., NPs) is stipulated before the mapping between
the two. Finally, following recent experimental findings, they propose a
feed-forward cascading rather than a strictly serial processing model.

B-S & S argue that their model is the best suited for the cross-linguistic
description of linguistic processing at the syntax-semantics interface. In
addition, they point out that it is one of the few models based on the
processing of grammatical and plausible structures (most research on syntax in
the cognitive neurosciences uses violation paradigms to study syntactic
processing). It is clear about its psycholinguistic assumptions for linguistic
representation during processing. However, as they note, its greatest weakness
is its underspecification of links between psychological and neurological
processes engaged during processing (contrary to Ullman, 2004 for neurocognitive
and Hagoort, 2005 for psycho-cognitive and neurological processes).

The book ends with a plea for the development of a neurocognitive science that
does not have to make reference to linguistics or neurology to find an
appropriate level of granularity (Poeppel & Embick, 2005), but rather to forge
ahead and develop its own tradition in the pursuit of a better understanding of
human linguistic cognition.


Culicover, Peter W. & Jackendoff, Ray (2005). Simpler syntax. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Poeppel, David, & Embick, David (2005). Defining the relation between
linguistics and neuroscience. In A. Cutler (Ed.), Twenty-First Century
Psycholinguistics: four cornerstones (pp. 103-118). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Friederici, Angela D. (2002). Towards a neural basis of auditory sentence
processing. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(2), 78-84.

Hagoort, Peter (2005). On Broca, brain and binding: a new framework. Trends in
Cognitive Sciences, 9, 416-423.

Shapiro, Kevin & Caramazza, Alfonso (2004). The Neural Basis of Syntactic
Processes. In Michael S. Gazzaniga, ed., The Cognitive Neurosciences (3 ed., pp.
803-814). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ullman, Michael T. (2004). Contributions of memory circuits to language: The
declarative/procedural model. Cognition, 92, 231-270.

Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de Montréal and pursued postdoctoral studies at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders at McGill University. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, language disorders (Specific Language Impairment), language acquisition, morphology and morphosyntax. Her thesis investigated verb processing in language-impaired French-speaking adolescents and adults. Her postdoctoral research focused on early verb acquisition in French-speaking children with and without SLI. She is presently carrying out research on language acquisition (French DPs) and processing of complex noun phrases in French- and Spanish-speaking populations with and without SLI, ERP imaging of morphological processing and agreement in French-speaking adults and children, as well as eye-tracking experiments on morphological processing. She holds a professorship at the School of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology at the Université de Montréal, has a research lab at the CHU Sainte-Justine and is a member of the Centre for Research on Language, Mind and Brain (Montreal).

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