French object relatives: all is good when the context is right

TitreFrench object relatives: all is good when the context is right
Publication TypeCommunication
Année de publication2016
AuthorsPozniak, Celine, Barbara Hemforth, and Anne Abeillé
Titre de la conférenceArchitectures and Mechanisms of Human Language Processing
Date de publication09/2016

In experiments and corpus studies, we compared two types of French Object Relatives: with preverbal subject (le livre que Paul lit, 'the book that Paul reads') and with inverted subject (le livre que lit Paul). The linear distance hypothesis predicts the latter should be easier to process. However, in a Visual World experiment using reversible RCs with agentive verbs, we found the former to be easier. 
In a corpus study, we looked at general frequency of OR-types, verb semantics (+/- agentive), relative length of subject and verb in number of syllables, and the number of arguments in the OR. Logistic regressions show that the two ORs don't differ significantly in frequency, excluding a frequency-based explanation. Inverted ORs are actually preferred when the subject is longer, and the verb shorter with a non agentive meaning. Our findings showed that general frequency cannot be the factor explaining the use of the two ORs, but that verb semantics and length play a role. This means that the two ORs are not just alternatives but used in specific syntactic/semantic conditions. An acceptability judgement experiment confirmed that inverted ORs can be preferred over non-inverted ORs when the subject is longer and the verb non agentive.