Chapter 6. Linearization preferences given “Free Word Order”; subject preferences given ergativity
In this chapter, we discuss some recent results from studies of word order processing in Basque that show that despite the apparently unconstrained freedom the language displays in linearizing major phrasal constituents in the sentence, native speakers’ processing strategies reveal a clear advantage favoring the linearization that corresponds to minimal syntactic computation. This is reflected in the time speakers employ to read sentences, and also in the electrophysiological signals of neural processing measured by means of event related potentials (ERPs). Moreover, when confronted with chains that are syntactically ambiguous, speakers process them as if they were unambiguous, choosing the minimal syntactic computation (SOV) given their head final grammar. We also suggest that the claim that processing preferences universally favour subjects might need to be revisited under the light of ergativity. We suggest that accounts of processing mechanisms and strategies based on notions like “subject of” or “object of” as explanatory primitives are likely to fall short, and we argue that accounts that take into consideration the impact of morphological variability in processing yield a more accurate view of the interplay of variant and invariant processing mechanisms of language.