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Colloquium with Rebecca Tollan, University of Delaware

TITLE:  "Split case marking at the syntax-pragmatics interface: How morphosyntax affects pronoun interpretation (joint work with Lauren Clemens)"

ABSTRACT:  Anaphoric pronouns such as “it” in sentences like “The dog chased the cat, and it bit the rabbit” are linguistically ambiguous and therefore dependent on prior context for interpretation. In this talk, I examine how the morphosyntactic case forms (nominative, accusative, ergative, absolutive) of noun phrases in a prior clause (e.g., “the dog” and “the cat”) influence a listeners’ choice of antecedent for the ambiguous pronoun. Data is drawn from an earlier experimental study (Tollan & Heller, 2022) of split-ergativity in Niuean (Austronesian), as well as new results from Copala Triqui (Oto-Manguean), which exhibits Differential Object Marking. Collectively, these findings indicate that accusative-marked objects are preferred as referents for pronouns over unmarked ones (in Copala Triqui), but that ergative-marked subjects are in fact dispreferred over unmarked (i.e., absolutive) ones (in Niuean). Lastly, a follow-up study on English, which adopts a type of “pseudo-marking” to allow manipulating prominence of subjects and of objects within a single experimental paradigm, provides support for a generalization that marking increases interpretative saliency of objects, but not of subjects.