Person-based prominence guides incremental processing: Evidence from obviation in Ojibwe
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Description: Distinctions related to person and animacy have long been known to impact both the grammar and incremental processing in a way that can be described through “prominence” scales. We put the generalizability of these scales to the test by examining the processing effects of a typologically rare distinction known as obviation, which is found in Ojibwe, an Indigenous language of North America. Obviation contrasts the single most discourse-salient animate third person (PROXIMATE) with other non-salient third persons (OBVIATIVE). Using a visual world paradigm, we show that obviation influences parsing and interpretation commitments under incremental ambiguity: Proximate nouns are assumed to be the agent of an action, while obviative nouns do not lead to strong incremental commitments. The result parallels previous findings in other languages with distinctions related to animacy and person, supporting a theory where the effect of prominence information in processing is the result of a common set of constraints derived from the alignment of scales related to person, syntactic position, and thematic role.