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Context-dependent semantic processing: Electrophysiological evidence from idiom comprehension


Rommers,  Joost
Individual Differences in Language Processing Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
International Max Planck Research School for Language Sciences, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society, Nijmegen, NL;


Bastiaansen,  Marcel C. M.
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;

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Rommers, J., Bastiaansen, M. C. M., & Dijkstra, T. (2011). Context-dependent semantic processing: Electrophysiological evidence from idiom comprehension. Talk presented at The 17th Meeting of the European Society for Cognitive Psychology [ESCOP 2011]. Donostia-San Sebastian, Spain. 2011-09-29 - 2011-10-02.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0012-2686-D
Evidence from literal sentence comprehension suggests that sufficiently constraining sentence contexts can lead to semantically specified expectations for upcoming words. In an EEG experiment, we investigated whether this semantic expectancy extends to the case of predictable words in opaque idiomatic expressions, in which the literal word meanings are unrelated to the figurative meaning of the expression as a whole (e.g., Dutch "walk against the lamp", meaning "to get caught"). Dutch participants were presented with two types of predictable sentence contexts: literal (e.g., transl. "After lunch the electrician screwed the light bulb into the...") and idiomatic (e.g., transl. "After many transactions the fraud eventually walked against the..."). In both contexts the critical word was (1) a correct and expected word (e.g., "lamp"), (2) a word that was semantically related to the expected word (e.g., "candle"), or (3) a semantically unrelated word (e.g., "fish"). Both (2) and (3) were semantic violations. In literal contexts previous findings were replicated: a graded N400 was observed, being largest for the semantically unrelated words, intermediate for semantically related words, and smallest for correct words. In contrast, in idiomatic contexts the N400s to semantically related and unrelated words were indistinguishable. These results suggest that idiomatic contexts do not lead to activation of the semantics of the predictable words. Furthermore, in idiomatic contexts only, the violations elicited a late positivity which was independent of semantic relatedness, suggesting that the semantic violations were treated as form violations instead. The results highlight the context-dependency of semantic processing and have consequences for theories of idiom comprehension.