Mental representation and processing of syntactic structure: evidence from Chinese
From the perspective of cognitive psychology, our knowledge of language can be viewed as mental representations and our use of language can be understood as the computation or processing of mental representations. This thesis explores the mental representation and processing of syntactic structure. The method used in this thesis is structural priming, a phenomenon in which people tend to repeat the linguistic structure that they have recently processed. The language under investigation is Chinese. The main research theme is divided up into four different questions. The first question is how syntactic structure is mentally represented. For a long time this has been a question for syntacticians whose main evidence is their intuition. There are, however, recent calls for experimental methods in the investigation of syntactic representation. I propose that structural priming can be used as an experimental approach to the investigation of syntactic representation. More specifically, structural priming can illuminate the constituent structure of a syntactic construction and help us determine which syntactic analysis corresponds to the representation of the construction. Three structural priming experiments on some controversial constructions in Mandarin were reported to show that structural priming can be used to distinguish alternative analyses of a syntactic construction. The second question concerns the use of thematic and lexical information in grammatical encoding in sentence production. Models of grammatical encoding differ in the locus of conceptual effects on grammatical encoding and the extent to which grammatical encoding is lexically guided. Five experiments were reported on these two issues. First, the results indicate that thematic information affects grammatical encoding by prompting the processor map thematic roles onto the same linear order as they were previously mapped. Though conceptual information was previously believed to only affect the assignment of grammatical functions (e.g., subject and object) to nouns (i.e., functional processing), this finding suggests that it can influence the linear order of sentence constituents (i.e., positional processing) as well. The results also show that the processor persists in using the same argument structure of the verb, implying that grammatical encoding is lexically guided to some extent. The third question concerns the processing of verb-phrase (VP) ellipsis in comprehension. Previous research on this topic disagrees on whether the interpretation of VP ellipsis is based over the syntactic or semantic representation of the antecedent and whether the antecedent representation is copied or reconstructed at the ellipsis site. An experiment was presented and the results show no structural priming effect from the ellipsis site. This suggests that no syntactic structure is reconstructed at the ellipsis and possibly no copying of the antecedent structure either. The results then favour a semantic account of VP ellipsis processing. The last question concerns the lexico-syntactic representation of cognates in Cantonese-Mandarin bilinguals. Previous research has paid little attention as to whether cognates have shared or distinct lemmas in bilinguals. Two experiments show that the structural priming effect from the cognate of a verb was smaller than from the verb itself, suggesting that Cantonese/Mandarin cognates have distinct rather than shared lemmas, though the syntactic information associated with cognates is collectively represented across the two languages. At the end of the thesis, I discussed the implications of these empirical studies and directions of further research.