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The influence of the immediate visual context on incremental thematic role-assignment: Evidence from eye-movements in depicted events

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  • Linguistics


Studies monitoring eye-movements in scenes containing entities have provided robust evidence for incremental reference resolution processes. This paper addresses the less studied question of whether depicted event scenes can affect processes of incremental thematic role-assignment. In Experiments 1 and 2, participants inspected agent-action-patient events while listening to German verb-second sentences with initial structural and role ambiguity. The experiments investigated the time course with which listeners could resolve this ambiguity by relating the verb to the depicted events. Such verb-mediated visual event information allowed early disambiguation on-line, as evidenced by anticipatory eye-movements to the appropriate agent/patient role filler. We replicated this finding while investigating the effects of intonation. Experiment 3 demonstrated that when the verb was sentence-final and thus did not establish early reference to the depicted events, linguistic cues alone enabled disambiguation before people encountered the verb. Our results reveal the on-line influence of depicted events on incremental thematic role-assignment and disambiguation of local structural and role ambiguity. In consequence, our findings require a notion of reference that includes actions and events in addition to entities (e.g. Semantics and Cognition, 1983), and argue for a theory of on-line sentence comprehension that exploits a rich inventory of semantic categories.

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