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Processing unambiguous verbal passives in German


Passivization played a central role in shaping both linguistic theory and psycholinguistic approaches to sentence processing, language acquisition and impairment. We present the results of two experiments that simultaneously test online processing (self-paced reading) and offline comprehension (through comprehension questions) of passives in German while also manipulating the event structure of the predicates used. In contrast to English, German passives are unambiguously verbal, allowing for the study of passivization independent of a confound in the degree of interpretive ambiguity (verbal/adjectival). In English, this ambiguity interacts with event structure, with passives of stative predicates naturally receiving an adjectival interpretation. In a recent study, Paolazzi et al. (2015, 2016) showed that in contrast to the mainstream theoretical perspective, passive sentences are not inherently harder to process than actives. Complexity of passivization in English is tied to the aspectual class of the verbal predicate passivized: with eventive predicates, passives are read faster (as hinted at in previous literature) and generate no comprehension difficulties (in contrast to previous findings with mixed predicates). Complexity effects with passivization, in turn, are only found with stative predicates. The asymmetry is claimed to stem from the temporary adjectival/verbal ambiguity of stative passives in English. We predict that the observed difficulty with English stative passives disappears in German, given that in this language the passive construction under investigation is unambiguously verbal. The results support this prediction: both offline and online there was no difficulty with passivization, under either eventive or stative predicates. In fact, passives and their rich morphology eased parsing across both types of predicates.

Corresponding author
Author’s address: Department of Language and Linguistic Science, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD,
Author’s address: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin & Leibniz-Center General Linguistics (ZAS), Unter den Linden 6, 10099, Berlin,
Author’s address: Institut für Slawistik und Hungarologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099, Berlin,
Author’s address: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099, Berlin,
Author’s address: Department of Linguistics, University College London, 2 Wakefield Street, WC1N 1PF, London,
Author’s address: Department of Linguistics, University College London, 2 Wakefield Street, WC1N 1PF, London,
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Acknowledgements: This research was funded by the DFG Leibniz Prize AL 554/8-1 to Artemis Alexiadou. We are also grateful to the audience of the workshop on The Syntax of Argument Structure at the 38th Annual DGfS Conference, Konstanz, and the anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Linguistics.

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