Neural correlates of semantic and syntactic processes in the comprehension of case marked pronouns: evidence from German and Dutch

Monique Lamers*, B.M. Jansma-Schmitt, A. Hammer, T.F. Münte

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: It is well known that both semantic and syntactic information play a role in pronoun resolution in sentences. However, it is unclear what the relative contribution of these sources of information is for the establishment of a coreferential relationship between the pronoun and the antecedent in combination with a local structural case constraint on the pronoun (i. e. case assignment of a pronoun under preposition governing). In a prepositional phrase in German and Dutch, it is the preposition that assigns case to the pronoun. Furthermore, in these languages different overtly case-marked pronouns are used to refer to male and female persons. Thus, one can manipulate biological/syntactic gender features separately from case marking features. The major aim of this study was to determine what the influence of gender information in combination with a local structural case constraint is on the processing of a personal pronoun in a sentence. Event-related brain potential (ERP) experiments were performed in German and in Dutch. In a word by word sentence reading study in German and Dutch, gender congruency between the antecedent and the pronoun was manipulated and/or case assignment by the preposition was violated while ERPs of young native speakers were recorded. Results: The German and the Dutch ERP data showed an enlarged negativity broadly distributed starting approximately 350 ms after onset of the pronoun followed by a late positivity for gender violations. For syntactic incongruencies without gender violations only a positivity was present. The Dutch data showed an earlier onset of the positivity in comparison to German. Conclusion: Finding negativities and positivities for conditions with a gender violation indicates that pronoun resolution with gender incongruency between the pronoun and the antecedent suffers from semantic as well as syntactic integration problems. The presence of a positivity for the syntactically incongruent conditions without gender violations suggests that the processing of incorrect case marking without a gender violation gives rise to syntactic but not semantic integration problems. We suggest that the more prominent case violation in Dutch caused the earlier onset of the positivity in the Dutch study. In addition, the pattern of ERP effects shows that both case and gender information are used almost immediately implying that the local structural constraint affects the resolution process with more processing activity than for a pronoun of which only one source of information is violated or incongruent.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-23
JournalBMC Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2006

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