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The Biological Bases of Syntax-Semantics Interface in Natural Languages: Cognitive Modeling and Empirical Evidence. Evguenia Malaia Ronnie B. Wilbur SLHS Department, Purdue University event structure. WORLD-to-LANGUAGE. events in real world 

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The Biological Bases of Syntax-Semantics Interface in NaturalLanguages: Cognitive Modeling and Empirical Evidence.

Evguenia Malaia

Ronnie B. Wilbur

SLHS Department, Purdue University

event structure

world to language

events in real world 

parsed out and expressed in sentences 

Each sentence centered around a predicate/verb

…and this is what we want to model

parsing observable events
Parsing observable events:

Human languages parse and formulate observable events in a logically restricted fashion

(e.g. Son and Cole, 2008, Borer 1994, Ritter and Rosen 1998, Davis and Demidarche 2000, van Hout 2000, Hale and Keyser 1993, Van Valin 2007)

Vendler (1967)

four syntactically relevant semantic types of predicates:

  • homogenous // atelic States and Activities

sleep (for an hour)

walk (for an hour)

  • transitions // telic Achievements and Accomplishments

die (in an hour)

paint a portrait (in two weeks)

model of event structure
Model of Event Structure


Telic transition to end state

Pustejovsky 2001

model of event structure1
Model of Event Structure

Ramchand (2008) - Divide events into

  • Initiation phrase InitP
  • Process phrase ProcP
  • Result phrase ResP

event structure

Participant involved:

  • Initiation phrase: Initiator
  • Process phrase: Undergoer
  • Result phrase: Resultee

argument structure

ramchand event structure model tree
Ramchand Event Structure Model Tree

initP (vP)











- verbal morphology of individual languages can represent individuated elements of event structure…

- which allows use of a single verbal root in multiple event structures…

- to yield telic or atelic meanings.

linguistic universals meet language processing
Linguistic universals meet language processing

Do we have empirical evidence that telicity affects the way human languages are processed?


complete analysis of all known languages of the world with respect to their event structure

evidence from psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research

linguistic universals meet language processing1
Linguistic universals meet language processing

Reaction times:

- O’Bryan (2003) - independent effects of telicity and transitivity

:word maze experiment with reduced relative clauses.

:reaction time advantage on the preposition “by” for sentences with telic verbs in the relative clause, as compared to those with atelic verbs;

:independent advantage for the second argument in sentences with obligatorily transitive verbs (both telic and atelic).

Friedmann, Taranto, Shapiro, and Swinney (2008)

priming effect for obligatorily intransitive telic verbs, but not for unergatives obligatorily intransitive atelics.


- Malaia, Wilbur, Weber-Fox (in press) ERP evidence for telicity effects on syntactic processing in garden-path sentences. Brain and Language.

The baby nursed/ burped by the mother rolled over.

The customer shaved / cheated by the barber left no tip.

The prisoner taught/ halted by the agent tried to escape.

erps on the rrc hp and np groups
ERPs on the RRC: HP and NP groups

processing of syntactic information interacts with the previous semantic context.

(cf. Yamada & Neville, 2007; Osterhout, Holcomb, Swinney, 1994)


frame alternations telic verbs
Frame alternations: telic verbs

awakened (transitive)

awakened (intransitive)




New argument does not require re-assignment of thematic roles


frame alternations atelic verbs
Frame alternations: atelicverbs

New argument requiresthematic role re-assignment

worshipped (intr.)

worshipped (transitive)





linguistic universals language processing unified account
Linguistic universals, language processing – unified account?

Where did

grammatically relevant semantic features

come from?

Research on Signed languages:

  • tied to the visual modality
  • in both production and perception
  • provide the missing link
event structure in american sign language
Event structure in American Sign Language

Telic event signs

a. change of aperture b. orientation change c. setting change d. change of location

handshape change proximal/distal with contact


Atelic event signs

(a) RUN [tracing: straight] (b) PLAY (tracing + TM) (c) READ (tracing + TM)

Telic and atelic predicates in signed languages


event structure and sls
Event Structure and SLs

We already know that telicity plays a role in sign morphology:

  • [delayed completive] aspect only applies to telic stems (Brentari 1998).
  • Durative and continuative aspects cannot apply to telic predicates (Wilbur 2005, in press).
  • Some mouth non-manuals are distributed according to predicate telicity type (Schalber 2004, 2006; Schalber & Grose 2006) in Austrian Sign Language and American Sign Language.

:: production differences reflecting semantic distinction of event type

event visibility hypothesis
Event Visibility Hypothesis

The Event Visibility Hypothesis (EVH) argues that the semantics of event structure (subevents) are visible in predicate sign formation.

Can see if an end state is intended by way sign movement comes to a stop:

- rapidly for end states

- regularly for no end state.

motion analysis
Motion Analysis

ASL signs representing telic events appear to contain ‘perceptually significant rapid deceleration to a stop’.


Signs representing telic events will have steeper deceleration slopes than those representing atelic events, because it will provide an end-marking to indicate the final State.



  • 29 telic and 21 atelic signs chosen, randomized and presented to native bilingual ASL signer.


  • Signs in isolation (done twice)
  • Signs in carrier phrase SIGN X AGAIN
  • Signs in medial sentence position IX3 X TODAY
  • Signs in final position TODAY IX3 X (NB: data analysis not yet finished).
  • Each sign produced 4 times by signer

x 29 for telic = 116 cases for telics

x 21 for atelic = 84 cases for atelics.


  • Gypsy 3.0 wired motion capture suit
  • Pair of 18-sensor Metamotion Cybergloves.
  • Six special motion capture ceiling mounted cameras.
deceleration results

e.g. Mean telic slope is 1.46 times steeper than mean atelic slope in isolation

  • Sign movements have internal structure based on velocity changes
  • Signers are making production distinctions

Metric: the Slope from the velocity peak to the next velocity minimum, reflecting the deceleration to(ward) a stop.

Slope Atelic Telic Ratio Telic/Atelic

Isolation 1 * -.09 -.14 1.46

Isolation 2 * -.12 -.18 1.46

Carrier Phrase** -.12 -.23 1.97

Sentence 1 * -.14 -.23 1.62

Difference between atelic and telic slopes is significant at *p<.05 **p<.001

what is recipient doing for processing
What is recipient doing for processing?

ASL productionstudies - left hemispheric activation of Broca’s area (cf. Corina et al. 1999, Horowitz et al. 2003, Emmorey 2002, 2003, 2004).

ASL comprehension studies - bilateral activation in Broca’s area (Levänen et al, 2001, Neville et al., 1998, etc)

- also typical for audiovisual stimuli comprehension in spoken languages (cf. Capek et al., 2004).

Broca’s area is activated during both syntactic and semantic processing in spoken languages - integrates syntactic and semantic information during sentence comprehension (Hagoort, 2005).

:: spoken and signed languages appear to be highly correlated in the use of Broca’s area in the left hemisphere for integration of structural and lexical linguistic information.


hypotheses on asl predicates
Hypotheses on ASL predicates

Telic predicates in ASL incorporate the end-state and internal argument

Atelic predicates do not  simpler  smaller load?

Hypothesis: ASL predicate signs with distinct types of event structure (telic vs. atelic) would elicit differentiated activation patterns in Broca’s area (BA 44/45) of left IFG.

pilot fmri study of asl predicates
Pilot fMRI study of ASL predicates

Participants: 5 healthy adults - native ASL signers:

Subjects were presented with visual stimuli consisting of telic and atelic ASL signs in a block paradigm, with non-ASL gesture as a baseline condition.


data acquisition and fixed effects analysis
Data acquisition and fixed effects analysis

Subtraction paradigm was used to compare differential activation during processing of telic vs. atelic predicates.

Fixed effects analysis of the pilot data from 5 subjects (p<.001, uncorrected for multiple comparisons) demonstrates activation clusters in Broca’s area (BA 44/45, cluster size 15 voxels), and V5/MT+, cluster size 5 voxels.


interpreting the empirical data
Interpreting the empirical data
  • experiments demonstrate semantics/grammar interaction in spoken and signed languages
  • syntax of human languages cross-modally is grounded in what can be construed as biological perception.

The way events are perceived and conceptualized is explicitly coded in syntax-semantics interface.



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thank you


We are grateful to Robin Shay, Gabriel Masters, Nicoletta Adamo-Villani, Greg Tamer, Javier Gonzalez-Castillo, and Purdue and Indianapolis sign language community for their ongoing support of Purdue Sign Language Lab research.

This work was supported by NSF Research in Disabilities Education grant, and by NIH grant DC00524 to R.B. Wilbur.