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Let's think the unthinkable: what our brains’ responses to impossible verbs can tell us about linguistic representation

  • Linnaea Stockall
24 May 2018
Language and Cognition Group meetings
Lipsius Building
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

Derivational affixes, such as the English prefix 're-' impose at least two distinguishable kinds of restrictions on the stems they can attach to. 'Re-' seems to require a verbal stem (refill, *renapkin), and furthermore require that this verbal stem take an internal, result state denoting small clause complement (*relaugh, *reput) (Marantz 2007, Alexiadou et al 2014). Behavioural lexical decision experiments in English, Greek and Slovenian show that native speakers are faster and more accurate at rejecting novel words that violate grammatical category restrictions on affixation than argument structure restrictions (Manouilidou & Stockall 2014).

In this talk I'll primarily discuss the results of a number of experiments conducted in collaboration with Alec Marantz (NYU) and Christina Manouilidou (U Ljubljana) investigating a set of English prefixes and Greek suffixes with differing category and argument structure restrictions. We use MEG to record the evoked neural activity associated with detecting and evaluating these two kinds of restriction, with a view to establishing the neural bases of the early stages of syntactic and semantic analysis. 

I'll suggest that these results offer a road map for addressing long standing questions about the linguistic properties and status of verbal elements, including questions about licensing/selection of arguments and the relationship between argument structure and event semantics. I'll show that by focusing on the apparently simple question of how we detect and make use of information about verbal roots, we can gain significant insight into the overall architecture of the human linguistic system.

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