Investigating Thematic Roles through Implicit Learning: Evidence from Light Verb Constructions

Wittenberg, Eva, Khan, Manizeh, & Snedeker, Jesse (2017): Investigating Thematic Roles through Implicit Learning: Evidence from Light Verb Constructions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8:1089.


The syntactic structure of a sentence is usually a strong predictor of its meaning: Each argument noun phrase (i.e., Subject and Object) should map onto exactly one thematic role (i.e., Agent and Patient, respectively). Some constructions, however, are exceptions to this pattern. This paper investigates how the syntactic structure of an utterance contributes to its construal, using ditransitive English light verb constructions, such as “Nils gave a hug to his brother”, as an example of such mismatches: Hugging is a two-role event, but the ditransitive syntactic structure suggests a three-role event. Data from an eye-tracking experiment and behavioral categorization data reveal that listeners learn to categorize sentences according to the number of thematic roles they convey, independent of their syntax. Light verb constructions, however, seem to form a category of their own, in which the syntactic structure leads listeners down an initial incorrect assignment of thematic roles, from which they only partly recover. These results suggest an automatic influence of syntactic argument structure on semantic interpretation and event construal, even in highly frequent constructions.

Eva Wittenberg has two new papers out

TROTZKE, A. and WITTENBERG, E. (2017) ‘Expressive particle verbs and conditions  on particle fronting’, Journal of Linguistics, 53(2), pp. 407–435. doi: 10.1017/S0022226716000153.

Jackendoff, Ray & Eva Wittenberg (2017). Linear grammar as a possible steppingstone in the evolution of language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24.1, pp 219–224. OpenAccess

Separating viewpoint from mode of representation in iconic co-speech gestures: insights from Danish narratives

Graduate student Anne Therese Frederiksen recently published a paper on gesture form and function in Language and Cognition titled ‘Separating viewpoint from mode of representation in iconic co-speech gestures: insights from Danish narratives‘.

Abstract: During narrative retelling, speakers shift between different viewpoints to reflect how they conceptualize the events that unfolded. These viewpoints can be indicated through gestural
means as well as through verbal ones. Studies of co-speech gestures have inferred viewpoint from gesture form, i.e. how entities are mapped onto the (primarily manual) articulators, but the merits of this approach have not been discussed. The present study argues that viewpoint is more than gestural form. Despite connections between the two, many other factors may influence a gesture’s form. Assessing viewpoint from gesture form alone limits the applicability of gestural viewpoint as a window onto speakers’ event conceptualization and introduces unnecessary differences in the categorization of viewpoint across gestures types. The present study examines iconic co-speech gestures in Danish narratives, and makes explicit the means used to infer gestural viewpoint. The approach advocated here ensures that the notion of viewpoint can be applied in a principled way to all or most iconic gestures.

Conéctate: Introductory Spanish is here!

Conéctate: Introductory Spanish is here! The next textbook by Prof. Grant Goodall and co-author Darcy Lear has just been published. Its distinctive approach uses four principles: focused approach, active learning, integration of culture and digital tools.