Processing information structure: Experimental evidence for a syntactic topic position in German

Stolterfoht, B. & Störzer, M.

University of Tübingen

Numerous studies have shown that information-structure impacts sentence processing (e.g., Arnold, Kaiser, Kahn, & Kim, 2013). The importance of information-structure for the syntactic position of constituents in languages with flexible word order also has been widely discussed. For German, Frey (2004) assumes that a specific syntactic position for topics exists above sentence adverbials. Based on assumptions regarding (non-)topicable noun phrases, i.e. phrases that are (not) able to serve as an aboutness topic (see Endriss 2009), we investigated the interaction of position and topichood.
Overall, the results of three experiments provide evidence for the important role of information-structure in sentence processing as well as for a topic position above sentence adverbials. Experiment 1 and 2 (acceptability judgments) manipulated the subject type (topical (referential NPs like 'the boy') vs. non-topical (non-referential NPs like 'no boy'/'every boy')) and the position of the subject (preceding vs. following sentence adverbials) and revealed a highly significant interaction of subject type and position, with higher ratings for referential NPs preceding and for non-referential NPs following the adverbial. Looking at temporal dynamics, the reading time data of Experiment 3 show that, depend on the referential status of the subject, information-structure comes into play at different points in time.