Field of Science

Talking about Love

Much of my work is on verbs that describe emotion, called "psych verbs." The curious thing about psych verbs is that they come in two varieties, those that put the experiencer of the emotion in subject position (Mary likes/hates/fears John) and those that put the experiencer of the emotion in object position (Mary delights/angers/frightens John).

These verbs have caused a four-decades-long headache for theorists trying to explain how people know what should be the subject and what should be the object of a given verb. Many theorists would like to posit theories on which you put the "do-er" in subject position and the one "done to" in object position. But some psych verbs seem to go one way and some the other.

There are basically only three theoretical possibilities:

a) There's no general rule that will tell you whether the experiencer of an emotion should be the subject or object of a given verb.

b) There's a general rule that tells you the experiencer should be the subject (or, on other theories, the object), and then there are some exceptions.

c) There are no exceptions. There are two kinds of psych verbs that actually mean very different things. Each group follows a particular rule: one sends the experiencer to subject; the other, to object.

I started out as a fan of theory (b). The results of my own work have pushed me in the direction of (c). The only theory that I'm pretty sure is wrong is (a). There are a lot of reasons I think (a) is wrong. One has to do with Broca's aphasia.

Broca's aphasia

People with Broca's aphasia -- typically caused by a stroke or brain injury -- have difficulty with grammar but are relatively good at remembering what individual words mean. Classically, Broca's aphasia was thought to result from damage to Broca's area, though I've heard that association is not as solid as once believed.
Some well-known language-related areas of the brain.

Either way, Maria Mercedes Pinango published a study in 2000 looking at how well Broca's aphasics understand psych verbs. She found that they had particular trouble with experiencer-object verbs (delights/angers/frightens) ... unless the verbs were in passive form (Mary is delighted/angered/frightened by John), in which case they had more trouble with the experiencer-subject verbs.

There are a lot of reasons this could be. The main aspect of the finding that interests me here is that this is *not* what you'd expect on theory (a), since on that theory, all psych verbs are more or less the same and there's no particular reason Broca's aphasia or anything else should impact one more than the other.

One worry one might have about this study was that it was published as a book chapter and not in a journal, and book chapters don't (usually) undergo the same review process. I don't personally know that much about aphasia or how one goes about testing aphasics, so it's hard for me to review Pinango's methods. More importantly, there weren't many participants in the study (these participants are not easy to find), so one would like replication.


As it happens, Cynthia Thompson and Miseon Lee recently published just such a replication (well, they published it in 2009, but one doesn't always hear about papers right away). It's a nice study with 5 Broca's aphasics, published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics. They tested both sentence comprehension and sentence production, finding that while passive sentences were harder overall, experiencer-subject verbs (like/hate/fear) were easier in the active form and experiencer-object verbs (delight/anger/frighten) were easier in the passive form. This effect was much more pronounced in sentence production than comprehension (in the latter case, it was not strictly significant), most likely because comprehension is easier.

Again, these are not the results you expect if the rules that tell you who should be a subject and who should be an object are verb-by-verb, since then there's no reason brain damage should affect one class of verbs as opposed to another (since there are no verb classes).* What exactly it does mean is much trickier. Give me another 20-30 years, and hopefully I'll have an answer.

*Actually, I can come up with a just-so story that saves theory (a). But it's certainly not what you would expect, and I believe there are a lot of other data from other paradigms that speak against theory (a).


Thompson CK, and Lee M (2009). Psych verb production and comprehension in agrammatic Broca's aphasia. Journal of neurolinguistics, 22 (4), 354-369 PMID: 20174592


Tal said...

I'm wondering how much of the effect can be explained by a preference for animate subjects. This preference could be mediated by a corresponding difference in frequency: I'm guessing that passive sentences make up a larger proportion of total tokens in "delight" ("I am delighted by the book") than in "like" ("This book is liked by me").

TFD said...

I think Tal's suggestion is worth listening to. Kutas and friends published an N400 paper that seemed to show that readers just have a baseline expectation for the first NP in a sentence to be animate.

Allen Hazen said...

I suspect I'm hopelessly behind the times, not acquainted with relevant recent research, etc etc etc

I've long been sympathetic to theory (a). Basic evidence: different languages (or even the same language at different stages of its history) treat the "same" psych verb differently. Example: older and modern English treatment of "think": thinker is the subject in modern Endlish, but object in older ("methinks" in Shakespeare's day probably a fossilized stereotyped idiom preserving an already obsolete grammar). 'Nother example: "itch" in English and Low German: standard English "I itch," but in the English of a freind whose grandparents spoke Pennsylvania "Dutch": "it itches me".

I think Tal may be on to something. Study cited, I'll bet, was on Broca aphasics whose language was like modern English, in which impersonal (or otherwise psycher as object) grammar is unusual: maybe the problem was just parsing a "marked" form.

GamesWithWords said...

@Tal -- a preference for animate subjects by itself won't help, since in this experiment, both the subject and the object were animate.

It is true that the subject of fear verbs are necessarily animate whereas the subjects of frighten verbs are not. How to translate that into a theory of the results is not entirely clear, though I agree with you that something along these lines seems relevant. Though, it should be mentioned, the preference for entailed animacy for subjects itself must be explained.

@Allen: The data you point to is most relevant if the older and modern verbs actually mean exactly the same thing. I'm not sure whether that's the case, and probably there is no way now to tell. Also, the kinds of exceptions you point to seem to be fairly rare. And that is something to be explained: why most verbs in most languages follow a very simple pattern. Both the pattern and the exceptions call out for an explanation.