Focus on focus: The brain's response to focus particles and accents in German

Heim, S.1, Stolterfoht, B.2, Gunter, T.2, and Alter, K.1
1Independent Research Group of Prosody, MPI of Cognitive Neuroscience, Leipzig, Germany; 2Department of Neuropsychology, MPI of Cognitive Neuroscience, Leipzig, Germany

In linguistic theory, it is assumed that focus particles like "even", "only" and "also" prototypically assign narrow focus, accent and semantic scope to the constituent following the particle. Although this seems to be the default assignment in German, too, the focus particle "sogar" (even) may also be associated with a preceding accentuated constituent. In the present ERP study, we investigated the interaction of the effects induced by the focus particle "sogar" (local prosodic structure) and the effects of global prosodic structure. The global prosodic structure was manipulated via accent on the right adjacent (default reading) or sentence initial word, no (=missing) accent, or double (=superfluous) accent. The results show that, independently of the presence or absence of a preceding accent, the focus particle "sogar" requires the presence of an accent on the right adjacent word (local prosodic structure). These accents evoke a fronto-central negativity around 400 ms which is not modulated by the presence or absence of a preceding accent. Later, however, the ERP is influenced depending on whether the accent was correct, missing, or superfluous (global prosodic structure). Accents on sentence-initial words are processed with delay. This seems to be the result of the relational character of prosodic structure which needs the following word(s) to decide whether the first word bears a narrow focus accent or not. Thus, the data show that global prosodic structure is relational but can locally be overridden by focus particles and their default assignment of focus, accent and scope to the right adjacent constituent.