Relative clause attachment in German, English, Spanish and French: Effects of position and length

TitreRelative clause attachment in German, English, Spanish and French: Effects of position and length
Publication TypeArticle de revue
Année de publication2015
AuthorsHemforth, Barbara, Susana Fernandez, Charles Clifton, Jr., Lyn Frazier, Lars Konieczny, and Michael Walter

German, English, Spanish, and French versions of short (ia) and long (ib) relative clauses were tested in written questionnaire studies. The noun phrases containing the clauses appeared in either object position (as in i) or in subject/topic position, and the relative clauses ambiguously modified the first or the second noun of the noun phrase.

(i). a. The doctor met the son of the colonel who died.
b. The doctor met the son of the colonel who tragically died of a stroke.

In the first experiment, German, English and Spanish were tested. In all three languages, more high attachment (first noun modification) interpretations were observed for long relative clauses than for short ones, perhaps reflecting differences in implicit prosodic phrasing provided by participants when they read the questionnaire. Across languages, more high attachment was observed in object position than in subject/topic position, but this effect was larger for German and Spanish than for English. In addition, although more low attachment than high attachment was observed in every case except German object position, German showed more high attachment than Spanish or English. A second questionnaire indicated that the preference for high attachment in German object position relative clauses cannot be attributed to readers taking these relative clauses to be extraposed. In a third questionnaire in French, we found a generally higher preference for high attachments as in German, but no position effect, as observed in English. We provide an account of these data, which does not require any special theory of relative clause attachment or parameterization for languages. It requires only general processing principles together with independently required grammatical differences among the languages studied involving the focus properties of object vs. non-object position and the availability in Spanish and German, but not English and French, of separate positions for topical vs. nontopical subjects.