Subjecthood in Chinese

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The existence of subject-object asymmetry in Chinese is a point of controversy. From a UG perspective, the syntactic category of subject is invariably the same, while LaPolla (1990) argues that there is no such category in Chinese. This paper takes an intermediate position and starts out from the observation that the syntactic distinction between subject and object has a lower profile in Chinese than in English and other languages. The question is what can be seen from an experimental perspective that looks at the incremental analysis of utterances by the brain. To test this, an ERP (event-related potentials) experiment was conducted with sentences of the type [NP1 Vtransitive Adverb] with two values for NP1 (animate subject vs. inanimate object) and two values for the context (animate topic context, inanimate topic context). As it turned out, Chinese also favors subject interpretation, i.e. NP1 is preferentially analyzed as S or A. This can be accounted for by the extended Argument Dependency Model (Bornkessel-Schlesewsky & Schlesewsky 2006, 2009a) with its universal subject preference, which is determined by simplicity-based factors that favor S and A over O. Additional semantic and pragmatic inferences can influence interpretation at a later stage of online sentence processing, as is the case in Chinese. Even though it is hard to explain why syntactic rules can be more easily overwritten in Chinese, ERP experiments offer interesting insights into what may constitute the category of subject.


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