The thematic hierarchy in sentence comprehension: A study on the interaction between verb class and word order in Spanish

Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 2015;68(10):1981-2007. doi: 10.1080/17470218.2014.1000345. Epub 2015 Feb 16.


Linking is the theory that captures the mapping of the semantic roles of lexical arguments to the syntactic functions of the phrases that realize them. At the sentence level, linking allows us to understand "who did what to whom" in an event. In Spanish, linking has been shown to interact with word order, verb class, and case marking. The current study aims to provide the first piece of experimental evidence about the interplay between word order and verb type in Spanish. We achieve this by adopting role and reference grammar and the extended argument dependency model. Two different types of clauses were examined in a self-paced reading task: clauses with object-experiencer psychological verbs and activity verbs. These types of verbs differ in the way that their syntactic and semantic structures are linked, and thus they provide interesting evidence on how information that belongs to the syntax-semantics interface might influence the predictive and integrative processes of sentence comprehension with alternative word orders. Results indicate that in Spanish, comprehension and processing speed is enhanced when the order of the constituents in the sentence mirrors their ranking on a semantic hierarchy that encodes a verb's lexical semantics. Moreover, results show that during online comprehension, predictive mechanisms based on argument hierarchization are used rapidly to inform the processing system. Our findings corroborate already existing cross-linguistic evidence on the issue and are briefly discussed in the light of other sentence-processing models.

Keywords: Psychological verbs; Self-paced reading; Sentence processing; Thematic hierarchy; Word order.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Algorithms
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Factor Analysis, Statistical
  • Female
  • Hispanic or Latino
  • Humans
  • Judgment / physiology*
  • Language*
  • Linguistics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Psychological
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reading
  • Semantics*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Vocabulary*
  • Young Adult