Theories of language processing confront the question of how formal properties of a grammar affect selection among competing syntactic analyses during incremental interpretation. In this talk, I will consider how relative clause (RC) placement affects processing of filler-gap dependencies in Chamorro, an Austronesian language of the Mariana Islands.
Chamorro is among a small set of languages in which relative clauses can both follow the modified noun phrase, as in (1a), or precede it, (1b). Chamorro also allows headless relative clauses, (1c). RCs without visible Wh Agreement, like (1), are ambiguous, allowing both a subject gap and object gap interpretation.
(1a) Dångkulu' atyu na sihik [ i ha dengkut i gayu ]
big DEM L kingfisher C AGR peck D rooster (1b) Dångkulu' atyu [i ha dengkut i gayu ] na sihik (1c) Dångkulu' atyu [i ha dengkut i gayu ]
subject gap: "That kingfisher that _ pecked the rooster is big." object gap: "That kingfisher that the rooster pecked _ is big."
I will present a series of touch-tracking and elicited production studies that investigate the interaction of putatively universal processing pressures, like the Active Filler Strategy, and language-specific constraints, like Chamorro's person-animacy hierarchy. Word order variability and ambiguity in relative clauses allow us to systematically ask whether visible, already-encountered syntactic constituents constrain this interaction differently than constituents that are unseen but guaranteed to occur later. Time-course measures reveal an early advantage for universal pressures - namely, that comprehenders initially posit subject gaps - but these pressures can ultimately be outcompeted if other grammatical constraints can be better satisfied given the information available. This is the case in prenominal relative clauses, a configuration in which the first visible DP that agrees with the verb is not extracted; and in relative clauses containing a null pronoun, in which case a subject gap is banned by alignment to the person-animacy hierarchy.
Finally, I will discuss patterns of generational change and constancy that these experiments have uncovered.
This research is a joint collaboration with Manuel F. Borja (Inetnun Åmut yan Kutturan Natibu/The Center for Native Medicine and Culture, Saipan, CNMI) and Sandra Chung (University of California, Santa Cruz).