A processing-based account of subliminal wh-island effects

Maayan Keshev*, Aya Meltzer-Asscher

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Wh-island effects are notorious for their cross-linguistic variation. However, experimental syntax studies observed super-additive wh-island effects in some languages which were previously argued to be immune to them. In four acceptability judgment experiments, we investigate the origin of super-additivity in acceptable wh-islands, so-called “subliminal island effects,” focusing on Hebrew. Our first experiment reveals a super-additive wh-island effect in Hebrew. However, we suggest that the super-additivity measure for wh-islands is contaminated by processing factors. Specifically, we propose that in this case, the decrease in acceptability reflects interference caused by the simultaneous maintenance of two dependencies, rather than grammatical islandhood. The following experiments demonstrate that super-additivity can be observed in binding structures, where it cannot be attributed to a violation of a grammatical constraint, but rather to processing costs related to interference for maintenance processes. We also show that when minimizing these costs, super-additivity does not emerge in Hebrew wh-islands. We conclude that processing costs underlie the apparent wh-island effect in Hebrew, and perhaps in additional languages, and that the super-additivity paradigm should be fine-tuned in order to avoid these confounds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)621-657
Number of pages37
JournalNatural Language and Linguistic Theory
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 May 2019


FundersFunder number
H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions631512


    • Experimental syntax
    • Hebrew
    • Island constraints
    • Maintenance costs
    • Wh-islands


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