Steven Foley (UCSC) will present “Why are ergatives hard to process? Reading-time evidence from Georgian” in ILC N400 at 3:30. All are welcome!
ABSTRACT: How easily a filler–gap dependency is processed can depend on the syntactic position of its gap: in many languages, for example, subject-gap relative clauses are generally easier to process than object-gap relatives (Kwon et al. 2013). One possible explanation for this is that certain syntactic positions might be intrinsically more accessible for extraction than others (Keenan & Comrie 1977). Alternatively, processing difficulty might correlate with the relative informativity of morphosyntactic cues (e.g., case) ambient to the gap (Polinsky et al. 2012; cf. Hale 2006). Ergative languages are ideal for disentangling these two theories, since they decouple case morphology (ergative ~ absolutive) and syntactic role (subject ~ object). This talk presents reading-time data from Georgian, a split-ergative language, which suggests that case may indeed be a crucial factor affecting real-time comprehension. Across four self-paced reading experiments, ergative DPs in different configurations are read consistently slower than absolutive ones — bearing out the predictions of the informativity hypothesis. However, the case is not closed: it seems that accusative morphology, at least in Japanese and Korean, does not seem to be associated with a processing cost, even though it is just as informative as ergative is. To reconcile this ergative–accusative processing asymmetry, I turn to the debate in formal syntax between different modalities of case assignment, and argue that a theory in which case is assigned by functional heads (Chomsky 2000, 2001) gives us better traction for understanding both Georgian-internal and crosslinguistic processing data than does a configurational theory of case (Marantz 1991).