Superiority in English and German: Cross-language grammatical differences?

Jana Haeussler, Margaret Grant, Gisbert Fanselow, Lyn Frazier

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Do the grammars of English and German contain a ban on moving the lower of two wh-s (‘Superiority’), or is their lower acceptability due simply to the complexity of processing the longer dependency that results when the lower wh- is moved? The results of four acceptability judgment studies suggest that a processing-alone account is inadequate. Crossing wh-dependencies lower the acceptability of both German and English questions, but with a significantly larger penalty in English than in German (Experiment 1). The larger penalty in English cannot be attributed to greater sensitivity to violations in English, since relative clause island violations result in comparable effects in the two languages (Experiment 2). A processing- only account might claim long dependencies are easier to process in German than in English because of richer case, but a control experiment did not support this possibility (Experiment 4). We suggest that moving the lower of two wh-s is banned in the grammar in English but not in the grammar of German. This predicts that there should be a penalty for crossing dependencies in English even in helpful (Bolinger) contexts, confirmed in Experiment 3, and even in short easy-to-process sentences, confirmed by simple six word sentences in Clifton, Fanselow and Frazier (2006). Finally, if German grammar does not contain a ban on crossing, it is not surprising that the penalty in German is smaller than in English, or that like-Animacy of the two wh-s plays a larger role in German than in English since feature similarity generally gives rise to difficulty in processing whereas in English a grammatical ban on crossing will lower acceptability whether there is processing difficulty or not.