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Languages: English
Types: Article
In linguistic theories of how sentences encode meaning, a distinction is often made between the context-free rule-based combination of lexical–semantic features of the words within a sentence (‘‘semantics’’), and the contributions made by wider context (‘‘pragmatics’’). In psycholinguistics, this distinction has led to the view that listeners initially compute a local, context-independent meaning of a phrase or sentence before relating it to the wider context. An important aspect of such a two-step perspective on interpretation is that local semantics cannot initially be overruled by global contextual factors. In two spoken-language event-related potential experiments, we tested the viability of this claim by examining whether discourse context can overrule the impact of the core lexical–semantic feature animacy, considered to be an innate organizing principle of cognition. Two-step models of interpretation predict that verb–object animacy violations, as in ‘‘The girl comforted the clock,’’ will always perturb the unfolding interpretation process, regardless of wider context. When presented in isolation, such anomalies indeed elicit a clear N400 effect, a sign of interpretive problems. However, when the anomalies were embedded in a supportive context (e.g., a girl talking to a clock about his depression), this N400 effect disappeared completely. Moreover, given a suitable discourse context (e.g., a story about an amorous peanut), animacyviolating predicates (‘‘the peanut was in love’’) were actually processed more easily than canonical predicates (‘‘the peanut was salted’’). Our findings reveal that discourse context can immediately overrule local lexical–semantic violations, and therefore suggest that language comprehension does not involve an initially context-free semantic analysis.
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