Event-related brain potential evidence for animacy processing asymmetries during sentence comprehension
The animacy distinction is deeply rooted in the language faculty. A key example is differential object marking, the phenomenon where animate sentential objects receive specific marking. We used event-related potentials to examine the neural processing consequences of case-marking violations on animate and inanimate direct objects in Spanish. Inanimate objects with incorrect prepositional case marker ‘a’ (‘al suelo’) elicited a P600 effect compared to unmarked objects, consistent with previous literature. However, animate objects without the required prepositional case marker (‘el obispo’) only elicited an N400 effect compared to marked objects. This novel finding, an exclusive N400 modulation by a straightforward grammatical rule violation, does not follow from extant neurocognitive models of sentence processing, and mirrors unexpected “semantic P600” effects for thematically problematic sentences. These results may reflect animacy asymmetry in competition for argument prominence: following the article, thematic interpretation difficulties are elicited only by unexpectedly animate objects.
Publication typeJournal article