Janet Fodor (Graduate Center, CUNY), In collaboration with graduate students*at CUNY presents:
What’s so difficult about center-embedding?
For 50 years, syntacticians have attempted to explain why one center-embedded relative clause (RC) adds mildly to the effort of sentence processing (The rat [the cat killed] ate the malt), but adding a second one pushes the cost sky-high (The rat [the cat [the dog chased] killed] ate the malt) - which doesn’t even sound like a grammatical sentence, though it is!
At CUNY, we have uncovered a novel explanation: A mismatch between syntactic structure (hierarchical) and prosodic structure (flat).
We’ve shown that this mismatch between syntactic/prosodic demands can be reconciled, but only for sentences with one specific/rare pattern of phrase lengths: Long [Short Short Short Short ] Long: [The rusty old ceiling pipes [that the plumber [my dad trained] fixed] continue to leak occasionally]. Though complex, this is clearly grammatical.
Summary: So what’s difficult about center-embedding? Not syntax. Not prosody. Just that these two modalities have conflicting structural needs.
*Stefanie Nickels, Esther Schott, Ben Macaulay, Danielle Ronkos, Tally Callahan, Tyler Peckenpaugh