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The use of resumptive pronouns in relative clauses appears to be governed by structural complexity in grammar and usage. Resumptive pronoun distributions across languages typically follow the Noun Phrase Accessibility Hierarchy (Keenan and Comrie 1977, Noun Phrase Accessibility and Universal Grammar, Linguistic Inquiry: 8: 63-99): if the grammar allows resumptive pronouns in one position, it also allows them in more deeply embedded positions. Hawkins (2004, Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars, Oxford University Press) predicts a parallel effect in usage: when the grammar permits the option of either resumptive pronoun or gap, resumptive pronouns should be used more often as structural complexity increases. Results of two experiments, an elicited production task and an acceptability judgment task, affirm Hawkins’ prediction for Cantonese: resumptive pronouns were used more often and rated as more acceptable as the complexity of the relative clause increased from subject to direct object to coverb object and from non-possessive to possessive. Furthermore, resumptive pronoun use was apparently not governed by any categorical grammatical constraints on filler-gap dependencies. Resumptive pronouns were sometimes omitted in coverb object relatives, contrary to a proposed adjunct island condition. Implications for theories of grammatical competence are considered.
Fedorenko and Gibson (2013) have argued against the continued use of informally collected acceptability judgments as the primary methodology in theoretical syntax and semantics research. We provide further support for their position with data from Mandarin and Turkish-language judgment tasks which examined the acceptability of resumptive pronouns (RPs) in relative clauses. Based on previous studies which relied on informal judgments, we expected that RPs should be permitted in certain types of Mandarin relative clauses, but ungrammatical in comparable Turkish relative clauses. The results failed to replicate this contrast: RPs were more acceptable than expected in Turkish, and less acceptable than expected in Mandarin. Furthermore, the Mandarin Chinese experiment showed an unexpected gradient effect. We argue that these results challenge existing theoretical accounts, support the more widespread adoption of experimental tasks in theoretical linguistics and in second-language research, and consistently support the Filler-Gap Domain complexity ranking as proposed by Hawkins (2004). We use the complexity ranking and its supporting evidence as a case study demonstrating that quantitative data, such as the evidence obtained from formal sentence judgment tasks, are indispensable in the defense or criticism of linguistic theories.