The effects of verb’s inflectional entropy on the processing of reflexive objects

Consider the minimal pair:

a.   Maria prijst/ helpt zichzelf                     

      Maria praises/ helps herself

 b. Maria prijst/ helpt Kathrin                    

      Maria praises/ helps Kathrin

Interpretation of zichzelf requires an intra-sentential referent while Kathrin does not. We use an information-theoretical measure to quantify processing complexity, namely the inflectional entropy of the verbal paradigm, a measure that reflects how an inflectional paradigm is organized in long term memory (LTM). We show that interpretation of a referentially dependent lexical item like zichzelf requires an operation on the verb itself because its speed of processing is modulated by the complexity of the verb as quantified by the inflectional entropy of its paradigm. More precisely, the value of the inflectional entropy influences the speed of activation of an inflected verb type from LTM as well as its re-accessing in working memory (WM). Furthermore, we argue that the speed is modulated according to the principle "what is easier to activate is harder to re-access".

In our experimental study, we used the self-paced reading task, measuring reading times at the point of the verb and at that of the object. We attested that verbs belonging to high entropy paradigms are retrieved faster than those belonging to low entropy paradigms. Crucially, when the verb is re-accessed, as in the cases of referentially dependent objects like zichzelf, verbs with high inflectional entropy delay the interpretation of the object, as reflected by the longer reading times. In other words, zichzelf is processed faster when it is the object of a praise-type verb (low inflectional entropy) than when it is the object of a help-type verb (high inflectional entropy).

Keywords: verbal entropy, processing, reflexives, dependency, re-accessing


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