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Lecture | Com(parative) Syn(tax) Series

Wh-island effects are similar in English and Spanish

Thursday 25 May 2023
Com(parative) Syn(tax) Series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


A-bar extraction from an embedded wh-question (e.g. ‘What did the politician want to know when they would reject _?’) is thought to yield unacceptability or ‘island effects’ in English, but not in Spanish (Torrego 1984). This contrast has been used to argue that the linguistic principles responsible for island effects are parameterized (see also Rizzi 1982). However, it is unclear to what extent the contrast holds: previous empirical work suggests that there are island effects in both languages (see e.g. Sprouse et al. 2012 for English and Pañeda et al. 2020 for Spanish), but that they can be small in Spanish in some cases (Pañeda & Kush 2021). One limitation of most previous studies is that they have tested island effects in each language independently, with different materials (cf. Ortega-Santos et al. 2018).

To better compare the two languages, we ran three acceptability experiments in each language with lexically-matched items. In each experiment, we obtained judgments from around 100 participants on one type of wh-island (introduced by when, whether or why). Our design, based on Sprouse et al. (2011 et seq.) manipulated the distance between the two members of the A-bar dependency (long, short) and the structure where it was established (island, non-island), identifying island effects as a structure × distance interaction. The three clauses yielded clear island effects in both languages, and, unexpectedly, these were slightly larger in Spanish. This indicates there are no relevant cross-linguistic differences in effect size and suggests that it may not be necessary to posit parametric variation—as previous work has done—to explain the data from both languages. Our wh-island effects may be attributed to the violation of simpler, non-parameterized grammatical principles, or to processing limitations.

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