Event Abstract

Are phrasal verbs treated by the brain as words or as phrases? Magnetic MMN solves long-standing linguistic puzzle

  • 1 INSERM, Ecole Normale Superieure, United Kingdom
  • 2 University of Leuven, Belgium

In the science of language, there has been a considerable debate as to whether phrasal verbs (e.g., turn up, break down) are processed as two separate items connected by phrase-structure rules or whether they form a single lexical representation. As linguistic and psycholinguistic studies could not unequivocally distinguish between these views, we tested them empirically using neurophysiological brain imaging. Previous work has shown that phrases elicit a reduced oddball response (MMN) if they respect rules of syntactic or semantic coherence compared with word sequences that violate such rules. In contrast, meaningful words that form a lexical representation show an enhanced MMN compared with items not stored in the lexicon. This makes phrasal verbs a straightforward test case: if they are stored and processed as singular lexical items (=words), real phrasal verbs should elicit an increased response as opposed to their meaningless analogues. If, however, they are parsed similar to phrases, then the larger response should be produced by non-existing (=syntactically incorrect/semantically incongruous) verb-particle combinations. We recorded, in passive oddball paradigm, auditory MEG responses to real and non-existing phrasal verbs (heat up, cool down, *cool up,*heat down, etc). Continuous MEG and HPI data were acquired using Neuromag 306-channel system placed in a light MSR, and processed offline using temporal signal space separation technique. Oddball auditory evoked fields to the same phrase-final particles (up, down) presented in proper and in infelicitous contexts were computed and compared to each other. We found that already at latencies below 200 ms, the brain's response was larger when the same acoustic event was part of a real phrasal verb (fall down, rise up) than when it was included in a non-existing item (rise down, fall up). Using L1 minimum current estimates, we found this enhancement to be bilaterally distributed in the perisylvian cortices and the temporal pole. In conjunction with earlier findings of the lexical enhancement of the MMN response, this increased activation for meaningful phrasal verbs strongly suggests that a verb and its particle together form one single lexical representation, i.e. a single lexeme, and that a unified cortical memory circuit exists for it, similar to that encoding a monomorphemic word.

Conference: MMN 09 Fifth Conference on Mismatch Negativity (MMN) and its Clinical and Scientific Applications, Budapest, Hungary, 4 Apr - 7 Apr, 2009.

Presentation Type: Poster Presentation

Topic: Poster Presentations

Citation: Shtyrov Y, Cappelle B and Pulvermüller F (2009). Are phrasal verbs treated by the brain as words or as phrases? Magnetic MMN solves long-standing linguistic puzzle. Conference Abstract: MMN 09 Fifth Conference on Mismatch Negativity (MMN) and its Clinical and Scientific Applications. doi: 10.3389/conf.neuro.09.2009.05.054

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Received: 24 Mar 2009; Published Online: 24 Mar 2009.

* Correspondence: Yury Shtyrov, INSERM, Ecole Normale Superieure, Cambridge, United Kingdom, yury.shtyrov@cfin.au.dk