What’s So Difficult About Center-Embedding?


WHEN Wednesday, December 12, 2018
6-7:30pm EST WHERE 19 Washington Square North WHO NYU New York Institute
Open to the Public

For 50 years, syntacticians have attempted to explain why one center-embedded relative clause (RC) adds mildly to the effort of sentence processing (The rat [the cat killed] ate the malt), but adding a second RC pushes the cost sky-high (The rat [the cat [the dog chased] killed] ate the malt) - which doesn’t even sound like a grammatical sentence, though it is!

At CUNY, we have uncovered a novel explanation: A mismatch between syntactic structure (hierarchical) and prosodic structure (flat).

We’ve shown that this mismatch between syntactic/prosodic demands can be reconciled, but only for sentences with one specific/rare pattern of phrase lengths: Long [Short Short Short Short ] Long: [The rusty old ceiling pipes [that the plumber my dad trained fixed] continue to leak occasionally]. Though complex, this is clearly grammatical.

Summary: So what’s difficult about center-embedding? Not syntax. Not prosody. Just that these two modalities have conflicting structural needs.

In collaboration with graduate students at CUNY. A special thanks to:
Stefanie Nickels, Esther Schott, Ben Macaulay, Danielle Ronkos, Tally Callahan, Tyler Peckenpaugh

Janet Fodor, Distinguished Professor of linguistics, CUNY Graduate Center

Organized by
Liina Pylkkanen, Professor of Linguistics and Psychology, NYU
Alec Marantz, Professor of Linguistics and Psychology, NYU; Principal Investigator of the Neuroscience of Language Laboratory, NYUAD

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