Seminar Series

Incremental interpretation of German particle verb constructions:

In German main clauses, the stem of a finite particle verb must appear in second position whereas the particle itself appears in clause-final position (see examples below). The meaning of the predicate crucially depends on the particle. For example, the verb 'nehmen' (to take) combined with 'auf' (=> 'aufnehmen') can mean 'to make a recording' (1), whereas in combination with 'aus' (=> 'ausnehmen'), it means 'to gut' (as in 'to gut a fish') (2). Hence, the meaning of the predicate is often ambiguous before the end of the main clause, leading some theorists to assume that sentence interpretation (determining who does what to whom) must be delayed until clause-final positions in German. I will present sentence completion and 'visual world' eye-movement data showing that, contrary to the 'delayed interpretation' hypothesis, sentence comprehension proceeds in a highly incremental fashion for the given examples. Listeners rapidly combine multiple constraints such as lexical frequency ('aufnehmen' is more frequent than 'ausnehmen') and real world plausibility in order to make predictions about the appropriate sentence continuation as soon as they encounter the verb stem ('nimmt'/takes). I will argue that this is possible because at 'nimmt', listeners activate all meanings that are compatible with this (partial) word; a local competition of constraints determines the most favoured interpretation, which, in turn, enables the prediction of subsequent input (i.e. the object and the particle). (1) Der Mann nimmt gleich die Kassette auf. "The man takes shortly the cassette up." (= The man will shortly make a recording) (2) Der Mann nimmt gleich die Forelle aus. "The man takes shortly the trout out." (= The man will shortly gut the trout)