Chapter 1. Relative clauses

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This chapter offers an emergentist perspective on the typology, processing, and acquisition of relative clauses. I begin by outlining the key tenets of an emergentist approach to language, and then offer a proposal for how the two major types of relative clause patterns found in the world’s languages (noun-first and noun-last) can be processed without reference to syntactic structure. Two factors in addition to frequency are identified as potential contributors to processing cost: prominence (the salience of the relativized element within the relative clause) and distance (the length of the filler-gap dependency holding between the head noun and the position at which it can be assigned a role within the relative clause). Differences in the relative influence of these factors in noun-first and noun-last languages are then linked to apparent differences in processing cost for subject and direct object relative clauses in the two language types. In the final part of this chapter, these differences are used to build a processing-based account for the acquisition of relative clauses, shedding light on the developmental course typical of this phenomenon in the first years of life.


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