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The role of prosody in the interpretation of structural ambiguities in German

Kathleen Schneider, Outi Tuomainen, Jan Ries, Isabell Wartenburger and Sandra Hanne

Cognitive Sciences, Department of Linguistics, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany

The rapid integration of morpho-syntactic and lexical cues plays an important role for structural prediction and sentence interpretation (Kamide et al., 2003; Knoeferle et al., 2005). However, prosodic cues might provide additional information to facilitate syntactic disambiguation and thematic role assignment (Henry et al., 2017; Weber et al., 2006). Therefore, this study investigated effects of neutral, natural and exaggerated prosody on the interpretation of locally ambiguous German SVO and OVS sentences. In a visual-world experiment, thirty younger and thirty elderly healthy participants performed a sentence-picture matching task. Response accuracy, reaction times and fixation proportions to the target picture were analysed using linear mixed models. Our results showed no support for beneficial effects of natural prosodic cues. However, we demonstrated an early facilitative role of exaggerated prosodic cues (i.e., increased f0 maximum) in SVO sentences, as well as beneficial effects of exaggerated prosody adding to the disambiguating morpho-syntactic cues in OVS sentences. This was apparent from higher fixation proportions in the exaggerated prosody vs. neutral condition at the second noun phrase, which served as the morpho-syntactic point of disambiguation (see Figure 1). Thus, participants reduced their prediction error in the interpretation of non-canonical OVS structures by using exaggerated prosody in addition to morpho-syntactic cues. Our findings further demonstrate comparable cue use in both age groups with, however, inter-individual variability in the processing of prosodic cues. This study replicates and extends previous findings highlighting the importance of examining variability in prosodic cue processing for structural prediction and sentence interpretation in future research.

Figure 1. Mean fixation proportions to the target picture (in %) for younger and elderly participants in two word order conditions (SVO, OVS), separated for three prosodic conditions (neutral, natural, exaggerated) and by time window (NP1, verb, adverb, NP2, silence); whiskers show +/- 1 standard error.
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