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Semantic role assignment in Danish children and adults

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In resolving “who did what to whom” in an active transitive clause, language users rely on intrasentential cues like word order, animacy and case marking. Most frequently, these cues will all point towards the same interpretation. For instance, in He kicked the ball, the agent he is both cued by word order (preverbal), animacy and case (the nominative). However, in Danish where word order may be subject to pragmatically motivated variations and thus allow for both subject-before-object and object-before-subject structures, conflicts often occur between the word order cue and other formal cues. Previous experiments in a variety of languages have shown that sentences with conflicting formal cues are habitually miscomprehended by pre-school children. For adults, they continue to be more difficult to read and comprehend, often being shallowly processed on the basis of heuristics. However, most previous experiments have presented sentences in isolation, that is, in situations that render a context-demanding structure with conflicting formal cues decidedly inappropriate. In this study we therefore cross the sentence boundary to investigate the interplay between intra- and extrasentential cues in Danish sentence comprehension. Comparing corpus data with recent act-out and reading experiments involving Danish sentences with conflicting formal cues, we argue that context plays an important role in the resolution of semantic role distribution. Children and adults weigh morphosyntactic cues differently, but we find a striking continuity in attention to context across development: when interpreting conflict clauses with object-before-subject structure, both children and adults systematically integrate intra- and extrasentential cues to assign semantic roles.
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Keywords: L1 acquisition; case; context; cue conflicts; sentence processing; word order

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen,

Publication date: July 3, 2014

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