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Case Syncretism, Animacy, and Word Order in Continental West Germanic: Neurolinguistic Evidence from a Comparative Study on Standard German, Zurich German, and Fering (North Frisian)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 July 2020

Alexander Dröge*
University of Marburg
Elisabeth Rabs*
Saarland University
Jürg Fleischer*
University of Marburg
Sara K. H. Billion*
University of Marburg
Martin Meyer*
University of Zurich
Stephan Schmid*
University of Zurich
Matthias Schlesewsky*
University of South Australia
Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky*
University of South Australia
University of Marburg, Department of Germanic Linguistics and Forschungszentrum Deutscher Sprachatlas (DSA) Pilgrimstein 16 35032 Marburg, Germany [] [] []
Saarland University, Department of Language Science and Technology Building C7.1, Room 1.17 66123 Saarbrücken Germany []
University of Marburg, Department of Germanic Linguistics and Forschungszentrum Deutscher Sprachatlas (DSA) Pilgrimstein 16 35032 Marburg, Germany [] [] []
University of Marburg, Department of Germanic Linguistics and Forschungszentrum Deutscher Sprachatlas (DSA) Pilgrimstein 16 35032 Marburg, Germany [] [] []
University of Zurich, Psychological Institute, Division of Neuropsychology Binzmühlestrasse 14/25 CH-8050 Zurich Switzerland []
University of Zurich, Phonetics Laboratory, Institute of Computational Linguistics Rämistrasse 71 CH-8006 Zurich Switzerland []
University of South Australia, Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Research Hub School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 Australia [] []
University of South Australia, Cognitive and Systems Neuroscience Research Hub School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy GPO Box 2471, Adelaide SA 5001 Australia [] []


To understand a sentence, it is crucial to understand who is doing what. The interplay of morphological case marking, argument serialization, and animacy provides linguistic cues for the processing system to rapidly identify the thematic roles of the arguments. The present event-related brain potential (ERP) study investigates on-line brain responses during argument identification in Zurich German, a High Alemannic dialect, and in Fering, a North Frisian variety, which both exhibit reduced case systems as compared to Standard German. Like Standard German, Zurich German and Fering are Continental West Germanic varieties, and indeed argument processing in sentences with an object-before-subject order engenders a qualitatively similar ERP pattern of a scrambling negativity followed by a P600 in all tested varieties. However, the P600 component—a late positive ERP response, which has been linked to the categorization of task-relevant stimuli—is selectively affected by the most prominent cue for argument identification in each variety, which is case marking in Standard German, but animacy in Zurich German and Fering. Thus, even closely related varieties may employ different processing strategies based on the language-specific availability of syntactic and semantic cues for argument identification.*

© Society for Germanic Linguistics 2020

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This research project was part of the LOEWE program “Fundierung linguistischer Basiskategorien” (TP6: “Der Zusammenhang der Kasusmarkierung, Serialisierungsfixierung und Belebtheitshierarchie in den deutschen Regionalsprachen”) funded by the German State of Hesse. Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky is supported by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT160100437). We would like to thank colleagues at the University of Marburg for many fruitful discussions and constructive comments, in particular Phillip Alday, Sophie Ellsäßer, Simon Kasper, Jona Sassenhagen, Oliver Schallert, Jürgen Erich Schmidt, and Alexander Werth. We are also very grateful to the many people in Zurich and on Föhr who inspired us with their comments and suggestions, and who helped us with stimulus translations, recordings, participant recruitment, and lab work, in particular Anja Betschart, Daniela Buser, and Anja Hasse at the University of Zurich, as well as Volkert F. Faltings, Kerrin Ketels, Meike Riewerts, Nele Schneider, Enken Tholund, and Heike Volkerts at the Ferring Stiftung in Alkersum/Föhr. We would also like to thank three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript.


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