Journal of Cultural Cognitive Science

, Volume 3, Supplement 1, pp 39–64 | Cite as

Mapping thematic roles onto grammatical functions in sentence production: evidence from structural priming in Italian

  • Mirta VerniceEmail author
  • Robert J. Hartsuiker
Research Paper


Four experiments in Italian investigated how conceptual entities are mapped onto grammatical functions. By orthogonally manipulating the animacy of the elements partaking to a transitive event, we tested two views of the theme to function mapping process. Under the function mapping account, this mapping is a competition for the syntactic functions between concepts associated to different thematic roles (e.g., agent, patient), with animate entities and agents most likely to be mapped onto subject function (Bock and Levelt in handbook of psycholinguistics, Academic Press, San Diego, pp 945–984, 1994). The argument selection principle assumes that thematic roles can be decomposed into more primitive features, namely Proto-Roles (Dowty in language 67(3):547–619, 1991). Given a transitive event, the concept that possesses the largest number of semantic features prototypically associated with the agent is realized as the subject; the concept involving more patient-like entailments is realized as object. In Experiment 1, participants rated the Proto-Roles properties of the concepts partaking to transitive events. Experiment 2 involved a picture naming task of the same transitive events. Structural priming was used in Experiments 3 and 4 to influence the overall distribution of active and passive responses. In this way, the two views could be contrasted under different levels of bias towards the active. The results support the argument selection view under which theme to function mapping is influenced not only by the conceptual accessibility of the concepts but also by the mismatch between the semantic features of the argument (its animacy) and the thematic representation of the event. The data further generalize the evidence for structural priming to Italian.


Thematic roles Animacy Functional mapping Proto-roles 


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Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Milano-BicoccaMilanItaly
  2. 2.Ghent UniversityGhentBelgium

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