The Unaccusative Hypothesis revisited: on the mismatch between syntax and lexical semantics

Huang, Y. , Stranahan, L. & Snedeker, J.

Harvard University

The Unaccusative Hypothesis (UH) proposes that the subject of some intransitive verbs is underlyingly a syntactic object. This generates the prediction that the subject of an unaccusative must be mentally reactivated in its original postverbal position. Previous psycholinguistic studies have reported evidence of reactivation (Friedmann et al 2008, Koring et al 2012). However, these studies did not equate the unaccusative and unergative stimuli for imageability, animacy of the subjects, sentential context, or visual stimuli, resulting in confounds which jeopardize their conclusions. We reexamined UH with two Visual World Paradigm experiments, carefully controlled for all the factors above. On each trial, participants (n=40; n=52) saw 4 black-and-white drawings and heard a sentence. In the test condition, but not the control condition, one image was semantically related to the subject of the sentence. We measured the proportion of looks to the target image at three time regions after the verb onset and found a robust match-effect (p's<.05) but no differences between the unaccusative and unergative conditions (i.e. no difference in reactivation). We reconsider the prior experimental findings and conclude that there is no psycholinguistic evidence for the reactivation of unaccusative subjects. Finally, we discuss the consequences of our findings for syntactic theory.