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The processing of Italian subject pronouns

Maria Nella Carminati, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This work investigates the processing of Italian subject pronouns, both the null and the overt pronoun, in intra-sentential anaphora. A processing hypothesis is proposed, the Position of Antecedent Hypothesis, based on the assumption that there is a division of labor, with the null pronoun preferring a more prominent antecedent than the overt one. Furthermore, it is argued that in intra-sentential anaphora antecedent prominence is determined by syntactic position, with the Spec IP position, the pre-verbal position of the subject, being more prominent than other positions lower in the syntactic tree. The predictions of the Position of Antecedent Hypothesis are tested in a series of off-line and on-line experiments investigating a variety of antecedents standardly assumed to occupy Spec IP at s-structure: referential nominative and dative subjects, expletive subjects (tested in impersonal sentences, seem-sentences, existential-there and post-verbal subject sentences), and quantified subjects. One-referent and two-referent ambiguous and unambiguous contexts are investigated. Overall, the findings support the Position of Antecedent Hypothesis, as opposed to a hypothesis based on an economy principle (favoring the null pronoun generally), or one based on avoidance of ambiguity (favoring the overt pronoun). The findings show, however, that the antecedent bias of the overt pronoun is less stable and more context-dependent than that of the null pronoun. The processing of bound variable pronouns is also investigated. The results refute Montalbetti (1984). Differences between intra- and extra-sentential anaphora are explored. It is shown that pronoun resolution in extra-sentential anaphora is less sensitive to surface syntactic position than in intra-sentential anaphora, suggesting that the representations involved in the two types of anaphora are not isomorphic. It is also argued that the Feature Hierarchy (person > number > gender) has processing reflexes in pronoun resolution: features high on the Feature Hierarchy are better pronoun disambiguators than features low on the hierarchy. Overall this research supports the view that intra-sentential anaphora resolution in Italian is primarily sensitive to structural factors and that being in a Spec IP position confers special prominence on an antecedent. The cross-linguistic implications for the processing of pronouns in pro-drop and non-pro languages are discussed.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Carminati, Maria Nella, "The processing of Italian subject pronouns" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3039345.