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An Interdisciplinary Journal of the Language Sciences

Editor-in-Chief: Gast, Volker

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Volume 49, Issue 5


Recursion introduces a left-branching bias (where possible)

Thomas Berg
Published Online: 2011-09-05 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling.2011.027


Capitalizing upon the recursive nature of Saxon Genitives in English, this note examines the constituent structure of double Saxon Genitives such as (he took) my sister-in-law's child's life. An analysis of 200 cases from both the spoken and the written modality reveals a distribution of 70% left branching and 30% right branching. This left-branching bias exists in the face of a general right-branching preference in English. It is argued that left branching stems from the recursive structure of the Saxon Genitive. As listeners and readers take in the acoustic signal, they apply probabilistic decoding strategies and expect the more frequent nonrecursive Saxon Genitive to come up. Thus, the first two lexemes are treated as sister constituents. This introduces an advantage for left branching because such a configuration can be easily expanded into a double Saxon Genitive. By contrast, a right-branching structure leads the listener up the garden path. Branching direction in double Saxon Genitives is also found to be influenced by the animacy of their constituents. An animate possessor amplifies the left-branching bias whereas an inanimate possessor increases the incidence of right branching.

About the article

Correspondence address: Department of English, University of Hamburg, Von-Melle-Park 6, 20146 Hamburg, Germany.

Received: 2009-10-28

Revised: 2010-07-07

Published Online: 2011-09-05

Published in Print: 2011-09-01

Citation Information: Linguistics, Volume 49, Issue 5, Pages 977–990, ISSN (Online) 1613-396X, ISSN (Print) 0024-3949, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ling.2011.027.

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