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Lecture | LACG Meetings

Licensing at the interfaces - question-sensitive discourse particles and negative polarity items in sentence comprehension

  • Anna Czypionka
Thursday 14 October 2021
LACG Meetings
Pieter de la Court
Wassenaarseweg 52
2333 AK Leiden


In my talk, I will present behavioral and EEG data on licensing phenomena at the interfaces of syntax, semantics and pragmatics, focusing on the comprehension of German sentences. One is the licensing of question-sensitive discourse particles (QDiPs) like denn, which are licensed in interrogatives only. Like the better-described negative polarity items (NPIs), they are subject to a number of syntactic, semantic and pragmatic licensing conditions and constraints.

Completely unlicensed NPIs and QDiPs are both rated as unacceptable, and lead to increases in reading times. However, QDiPs with present but out-of-reach licensers lead to a surprisingly mild drop in acceptability relative to grammatical baselines, even though they are syntactically ill-formed. It is still unclear if this finding reflects a linguistic illusion, or rather a complex interaction of syntactic and pragmatic licensing strategies resulting in ultimately successful interpretation of these sentences. In the same experiments, NPIs with syntactically out-of-reach licensers are rated as unacceptable in offline ratings. Acceptance rates increase for speeded ratings, reflecting the well-known illusory NPI licensing.

In the presented EEG studies, NPI licensing violations are associated with an increased N400 amplitude. In contrast, the processing of QDiPs shows an increased P600 relative to a non-QDiP baseline, with subtle topographical differences between denn in syntactically well-formed and ill-formed sentences.

I will argue that these increases in P600 amplitude reflect the checking of multiple constraints and complex integration processes for successful QDiP licensing.

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