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C3 - Variation and change of morpho-syntactic reference

This project deals with grammatical and cognitive representations in the processing of linguistic utterances with respect to anaphoric reference patterns found in 3rd person singular possessives. In German, the 3rd person singular possessive agrees in gender with its antecedent:

  • der Bruder ᵢ … sein ᵢ Buch ‘the brother ᵢ … his ᵢ book’
  • die Schwester ᵢ … ihr ᵢ Buch ‘the sister ᵢ … her ᵢ book

However, even in written Standard German, occurrences of the masculine/neuter pronoun sein referring to feminine antecedents are attested:

  • die Sache ᵢ geht seinen ᵢ Weg (Duden Grammatik 2016: 275) lit. ‘the thing goes its way’ 

This is evidence that sein is underlyingly underspecified for gender. Corpus analyses suggest that gender-insensitive sein is primarily used with inanimate feminine antecedents; however, in certain German dialects (e.g., in Bavarian varieties) sein is generalized in the third person singular (and sometimes even in the plural). Thus, it is used even with animate feminine antecedents. Older stages of German also include instances of gender-insensitive sein. This suggests possible changes in the anaphoric reference behavior of sein.

This project will be of interest to students in Historical or German Linguistics or related fields. It intends to track the animacy restriction in a violation paradigm using EEG. The prediction is that sein with inanimate feminine antecedents produces a less deviant processing pattern than animates.