[PS-2.82] Thematic hierarchy effects in sentence comprehension: Evidence from eye movements

de Almeida, R. G. 1 , Cerejo Fernandes, M. 2 & Costa, M. A. 3

1 Department of Psychology, Concordia University, Montreal, QC, Canada
2 rogram in Cognitive Science, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisboa, Portugal
3 Faculdade de Letras, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisboa, Portugal

Verbs that assign the Agent role to the noun phrase in the subject position (e.g., The boy photographed the thunder) are taken to be canonical by the parser. Psychological verbs (e.g., fear/frighten, like/please), however, allow for two basic thematic structures, none of which assigns the Agent role to the subject position. In the subject-experiencer structure (The boy feared the thunder), subjects are Experiencers, yielding an atypical thematic structure (Experiencer-Theme). In the object-experiencer form (The thunder frightened the boy) argument realization is non-canonical (Theme-Experiencer) with the subject position assigned the Theme role, which is the least prominent in most thematic hierarchy proposals (e.g., Grimshaw, 1990). Manouilidou, de Almeida, Schwartz, and Nair (2009), found that Alzheimer?s patients have greater difficulty with psych-verb constructions than with typical (Agent-Theme) constructions. Moreover, they found that sentences with non-canonical argument realization (frighten: Theme-Experiencer) are more difficult than atypical ones (fear: Experiencer-Theme). We investigated the same phenomenon with a group 80 healthy young English speakers, employing eye-tracking paradigm. Total reading time data on the NP-V-NP positions suggest a similar effect as that obtained with Alzheimer?s patients: canonical Agent-Theme sentences were read faster than Experiencer-Theme and Theme-Experiencer sentences, supporting the hypothesis that parsing is sensitive to thematic hierarchy.