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Semantic and syntactic composition of minimal adjective-noun phrases in Dutch: An MEG study

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Kochari, A. R., Lewis, A. G., Schoffelen, J.-M., & Schriefers, H. (2021). Semantic and syntactic composition of minimal adjective-noun phrases in Dutch: An MEG study. Neuropsychologia, 155: 107754. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2021.107754.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000A-B834-C
The possibility to combine smaller units of meaning (e.g., words) to create new and more complex meanings (e.g., phrases and sentences) is a fundamental feature of human language. In the present project, we investigated how the brain supports the semantic and syntactic composition of two-word adjective-noun phrases in Dutch, using magnetoencephalography (MEG). The present investigation followed up on previous studies reporting a composition effect in the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) when comparing neural activity at nouns combined with adjectives, as opposed to nouns in a non-compositional context. The first aim of the present study was to investigate whether this effect, as well as its modulation by noun specificity and adjective class, can also be observed in Dutch. A second aim was to investigate to what extent these effects may be driven by syntactic composition rather than primarily by semantic composition as was previously proposed. To this end, a novel condition was administered in which participants saw nouns combined with pseudowords lacking meaning but agreeing with the nouns in terms of grammatical gender, as real adjectives would. We failed to observe a composition effect or its modulation in both a confirmatory analysis (focused on the cortical region and time-window where it has previously been reported) and in exploratory analyses (where we tested multiple regions and an extended potential time-window of the effect). A syntactically driven composition effect was also not observed in our data. We do, however, successfully observe an independent, previously reported effect on single word processing in our data, confirming that our MEG data processing pipeline does meaningfully capture language processing activity by the brain. The failure to observe the composition effect in LATL is surprising given that it has been previously reported in multiple studies. Reviewing all previous studies investigating this effect, we propose that materials and a task involving imagery might be necessary for this effect to be observed. In addition, we identified substantial variability in the regions of interest analyzed in previous studies, which warrants additional checks of robustness of the effect. Further research should identify limits and conditions under which this effect can be observed. The failure to observe specifically a syntactic composition effect in such minimal phrases is less surprising given that it has not been previously reported in MEG data.