Coreference and Antecedent Representation Across Languages

Sol Lago, Shayne Sloggett, Zoe Schlueter, Wing Yee Chow, Alexander Williams, Ellen Lau, Colin Phillips

Previous studies have shown that speakers of languages such as German, Spanish, and French reactivate the syntactic gender of the antecedent of a pronoun to license gender agreement. As syntactic gender is assumed to be stored in the lexicon, this has motivated the claim that pronouns in these languages reactivate the lexical entry of their antecedent noun. In contrast, in languages without syntactic gender such as English, lexical retrieval might be unnecessary. We used eye-tracking while reading to examine whether antecedent retrieval involves rapid semantic and phonological reactivation. We compared German and English. In German, we found early sensitivity to the semantic but not to the phonological features of the pronoun’s antecedent. In English, readers did not immediately show either semantic or phonological effects specific to coreference. We propose that early semantic facilitation arises due to syntactic gender reactivation, and that antecedent retrieval varies cross-linguistically depending on the type of information relevant to the grammar of each language.