Postersession 1
Poster #: 103
Topic: Speech and language (incl. deficits)
Wednesday, Sep 9, 2015
1st floor

MMN distinguishes rule-based and arbitrary processes in language

Jeff Hanna & Friedemann Pulvermüller

Brain Language Lab, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany

One of the fundamental theoretical questions in linguistics is delineating which aspects of language are whole units, and which aspects are combined according to rule-based processes, i.e. syntax. Recent work has used the MMN to shed new light on these long-standing theoretical disputes. This work exploits two patterns of results that have been established in the previous decade of linguistic MMN research: First, MMNs to deviant syllables or morphemes, which complete an existing word are stronger than MMNs to the same deviant when it forms a pseudoword instead. Second, MMNs to deviants which render a sentence ungrammatical are stronger than MMNs to the same deviants in a grammatical context. This divergence, where errors of lexicality enhance MMNs and errors of grammaticality reduce them, allows us to explore ambiguous linguistic phenomena which could plausibly be handled by either whole-form storage system or rule-governed systems.

In one case, we tested the status of derivational morphology. MMNs were elicited to derived German words “Sicherheit” (security) and “Sauberkeit” (cleanliness), as well as their incorrectly derived counterparts, *”Sicherkeit” and *“Sauberheit.” We found that correctly derived words produced stronger MMNs than incorrectly derived, suggesting the former are accessed as whole-forms, and not combined in “real-time” from their constituent morphemes.

In another case, we tested German separable verb-particle combinations (e.g. bilden … ab), where the prefix is separated from its root by some distance. MMN patterns indicated that despite this discontinuity between constituents, these verbs are still perceived as one unit.