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Reading case in Arabic: preliminary findings from an eye-tracking experiment

Conference contribution
Authors Andreas Hallberg
Published in Arabic Linguistics Forum. SOAS University of London, 4th-6th July 2018. Book of abstracts, s. 34
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Languages and Literatures
Language en
Keywords Arabic, case, eye movements
Subject categories Arabic language, Linguistics


Arabic case endings are syntactically superfluous and are largely absent in unpointed text. Proficient readers of Arabic are generally assumed not to maintain awareness of case endings when reading (Bateson 1967; Stetkevych 2006), and in effect to be parsing written Standard Arabic sentences with a “case-less” grammar, akin to that of the Arabic dialects. It is less clear how the case endings that do have a graphical representation and that are present in printed texts are processed. Two hypotheses can be postulated: either readers process them as marking case, or they process them as variant forms unrelated to syntactic position. Seeing to the superfluous nature of case endings in Standard Arabic, the latter would not lead to parsing difficulties or ambiguities. Testing these hypotheses through introspection is problematic seeing to the strongly prescriptive notions associated with the case system in Arabic that may cloud such judgments. An alternative method of testing these hypotheses is through eye-tracking techniques. Eye-tracking is a non-intrusive way of studying the cognitive processes associated with reading through the analysis of eye movements, with a high degree of temporal and spacial precision (Rayner 2009). In a planned experiment we will have participants read sentences that include either of the two most common types of orthographically marked case inflection: the nominative/non- nominative distinction in the sound (ـين/ـون) and the accusative/non-accusative distinction in indefinite masculine triptotes (ـًا/ø). In sentences with the, the target word is a subject, and in sentences with triptote, the target word is a direct object. Each sentence is presented in either an unaltered or an altered condition. In the unaltered con- dition the target word has the prescriptively correct form (with the first suffix in the two pairs above) and in the altered condition it has the prescriptively incorrect form (with the second suffix) which corresponds to dialectal case-less syntax. There is a well established correlation between syntactic anomalies and immediate high rates of regressions (back- tracking movement of the focal point to a previous part of the sentence, Ni et al. 1998; Pearlmutter, Garnsey, and Bock 1999; Braze et al. 2002). Thus, if the altered condition shows increased rates of regressions from the target word, this would indicate that participants process the orthographic case endings as marking case, in that they react to their alteration as a syntactic anomaly. If the altered condition does not show an increased rate of regression, this would indicate that participants do not process these endings as mark- ing case. The findings of this study has important implications for our understanding of the role of case in Standard Arabic. This will be the first time eye-tracking techniques are applied to investigate the processing of case markers in Arabic.

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