Respecting Relations: Memory Access and Antecedent Retrieval in Incremental Sentence Processing

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This dissertation uses the processing of anaphoric relations to probe how linguistic information is encoded in and retrieved from memory during real-time sentence comprehension. More specifically, the dissertation attempts to resolve a tension between the demands of a linguistic processor implemented in a general-purpose cognitive architecture and the demands of abstract grammatical constraints that govern language use. The source of the tension is the role that abstract configurational relations (such as c-command, Reinhart 1983) play in constraining computations.

Anaphoric dependencies are governed by formal grammatical constraints stated in terms of relations. For example, Binding Principle A (Chomsky 1981) requires that antecedents for local anaphors (like the English reciprocal each other) bear the c-command relation to those anaphors. In incremental sentence processing, antecedents of anaphors must be retrieved from memory. Recent research has motivated a model of processing that exploits a cue-based, associative retrieval process in content-addressable memory (e.g. Lewis, Vasishth & Van Dyke 2006) in which relations such as c-command are difficult to use as cues for retrieval. As such, the c-command constraints of formal grammars are predicted to be poorly implemented by the retrieval mechanism.

I examine retrieval's sensitivity to three constraints on anaphoric dependencies: Principle A (via Hindi local reciprocal licensing), the Scope Constraint on bound-variable pronoun licensing (often stated as a c-command constraint, though see Barker 2012), and Crossover constraints on pronominal binding (Postal 1971, Wasow 1972). The data suggest that retrieval exhibits fidelity to the constraints: structurally inaccessible NPs that match an anaphoric element in morphological features do not interfere with the retrieval of an antecedent in most cases considered. In spite of this alignment, I argue that retrieval's apparent sensitivity to c-command constraints need not motivate a memory access procedure that makes direct reference to c-command relations. Instead, proxy features and general parsing operations conspire to mimic the extension of a system that respects c-command constraints. These strategies provide a robust approximation of grammatical performance while remaining within the confines of a independently- motivated general-purpose cognitive architecture.