Processing covert dependencies: an SAT study on Mandarin wh-in-situ questions.


In wh-in-situ languages like Mandarin Chinese, in which the wh-phrase remains in a canonical argument position in wh-questions, syntactic theories generally posit that a covert dependency between the in-situ position and a clause-initial syntactic operator must nonetheless hold at logical form. Wh-in-situ languages and wh-fronted languages are in this way abstractly similar. This paper investigates whether the processing of Mandarin wh-in-situ questions indeed involves constructing a long-distance dependency. Using the multiple-response speed–accuracy tradeoff (SAT) paradigm, we show that Chinese wh-in-situ questions incur more processing costs than their non-wh counterparts. Furthermore, the length of the covert dependency affects only processing accuracy, but not processing speed. This pattern suggests a content-addressable memory process underlying the construction of wh-in-situ dependencies, similar to overt long distance dependencies in English.

Journal of East Asian Linguistics, 23, 207-232.