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Journal Article

Salience-weighted agreement feature hierarchy modulates language comprehension


Muralikrishnan,  R.
Scientific Services, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Muralikrishnan, R., & Idrissi, A. (2021). Salience-weighted agreement feature hierarchy modulates language comprehension. Cortex, 141, 168-189. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2021.03.029.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-008C-9
The brain establishes relations between elements of an unfolding sentence in order to incrementally build a representation of who is doing what based on various linguistic cues. Many languages systematically mark the verb and/or its arguments to imply the manner in which they are related. A common mechanism to this end is subject-verb agreement, whereby the marking on the verb covaries with one or more of the features such as person, number and gender of the subject argument in a sentence. The cross-linguistic variability of these features would suggest that they may modulate language comprehension differentially based on their relative weightings in a given language. To test this, we investigated the processing of subject-verb agreement in simple intransitive Arabic sentences in a visual event-related brain potential (ERP) study. Specifically, we examined the differences, if any, that ensue in the processing of person, number and gender features during online comprehension, employing sentences in which the verb either showed full agreement with the subject noun (singular or plural) or did not agree in one of the features. ERP responses were measured at the post-nominal verb. Results showed a biphasic negativity−late-positivity effect when the verb did not agree with its subject noun in either of the features, in line with similar findings from other languages. Crucially however, the biphasic effect for agreement violations was systematically graded based on the feature that was violated, which is a novel finding in view of results from other languages. Furthermore, this graded effect was qualitatively different for singular and plural subjects based on the differing salience of the features for each subject-type. These results suggest that agreement features, varying in their salience due to their language-specific weightings, differentially modulate language comprehension. We postulate a Salience-weighted Feature Hierarchy based on our findings and argue that this parsimoniously accounts for the diversity of existing cross-linguistic neurophysiological results on verb