Exploring the cognitive underpinnings of the correspondence between verb meaning and syntax
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This dissertation explores the cognitive underpinnings of the linguistic observation that there is a strong correspondence between the meanings of verbs and the syntactic contexts in which they occur. Building on the assumption that this correspondence is due to the fact that speakers’ prior experience with linguistic structures affects their subsequent behavior (priming), I propose the Verb Anchor hypothesis that holds that experience with a sentence leads to a cognitive association between the sentence’s verb and the syntactic frame the sentence instantiates and that when this association is strong, the verb serves as an ‘anchor’ of the frame. I predict that high semantic similarity between verbs leads to an increase in the likelihood of speakers’ choosing the same syntactic frame across sentences. More precisely, the more semantically similar a verb is to the anchor, the more likely speakers are to choose the same frame as the frame associated with the anchor. I examine the Verb Anchor Hypothesis in two related but separate contexts of use. First, four syntactic priming experiments investigate whether an anchor formed via speakers’ immediate sentence experience (the recent anchor of a frame) affects syntactic frame selection in subsequent sentence production. Second, two sets of corpus analyses investigate whether an anchor that results from repeated experience of association between verb and syntactic frame (the typical anchor of a frame) influences the syntactic realization of verbs that are semantically similar to the anchor and have similar syntactic options. Overall, the studies this thesis report on support the Verb Anchor hypothesis and provide a partial answer to the question why verbs with similar meanings tend to occur in similar syntactic contexts. They thus contribute to answering the ultimate question of why grammars of language are the way they are.