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Word Order in the German Middle Field: Linguistic Theory and Psycholinguistic Evidence

Thomas Pechmann; Hans Uszkoreit; Johannes Engelkamp; Dieter Zerbst
Universität des Saarlandes, CLAUS-Report, Vol. 43, 8/1994.


This paper deals with linearization of complements of German verbs. In German all permutations of the subject, the indirect, and the direct object do occur. Yet, they are supposed to differ regarding their degree of acceptability. Uszkoreit (1987) proposed a set of rules which aimed at representing such preferences as the product of different factors. This theoretical account leads to a predicted ranking of the possible syntactic forms. In a set of experiments we tested some of these predictions by application of different methods for tapping into the actual processing of the sentences. In particular, the predictions were (a) that sentences are more acceptable if subjects precede objects than vice versa and (b) that sentences are more acceptable if indirect objects precede direct objects than vice versa. Both comprehension and production experiments were carried out. The methods we used included a ranking task, delayed sentence matching, delayed articulation, rapid serial visual presentation and a sentence generation task. The findings yielded a very consistent picture concerning the position of the subject. Sentences were particularly easy to process if the subject was in initial position and particularly hard to process in subject-final constructions. Furthermore, there is somewhat weaker evidence for the assumption that sentences are easier to process if direct objects are preceded by indirect objects. Since these results were obtained by rather different methods they can be regarded as particularly reliable. Moreover, the data did provide evidence for a gradual increase or decrease of acceptability and no evidence for a jump function, sharply separating grammatical from ungrammatical forms. One of the principal aims of this first phase of our investigations which is reported in the present paper was to find experimental methods which consistently differentiate between the various permutations of verb complements as predicted by theoretical assumptions. This aim could be achieved. The next step will be to include pragmatic factors which are supposed to play a significant role in determining the acceptability of the sentences we are studying.