The influence of context on word order processing - an fMRI study

Line Burholt Kristensen, Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen, Andreas Højlund Nielsen, Mikkel Wallentin

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In languages that have subject-before-object as their canonical word order, e.g. German, English and Danish, behavioral experiments have shown more processing difficulties for object-initial clauses (OCs) than for subject-initial clauses (SCs). For processing of OCs in such languages, neuroimaging experiments have shown more activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus (L-IFG) compared to SCs. The increased activation in L-IFG has been explained in terms of syntactic transformation demands, increased argument hierarchization demands, and increased load on working memory. Behavioral findings have indicated that context may facilitate syntactic processing, but it has not been investigated whether a supportive context can decrease the activity in L-IFG.

With L-IFG as a region of interest (ROI), the present fMRI study of 21 Danish participants investigated how a supportive linguistic context would affect the processing of Danish main clauses with either an initial subject or an initial object. We found more activity in BA 44, BA 45 and BA 47 for OCs compared to SCs. The processing of Danish OCs is thereby seen to elicit effects in L-IFG comparable to previously investigated languages. The context manipulation showed reduced activity in BA 47 for SCs and OCs occurring after a supportive linguistic context, suggesting less pragmatic processing difficulties for sentence processing in a supportive context. Outside the ROI, the lack of context affected several regions in both the frontal, temporal and parietal lobes.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Neurolinguistics
Pages (from-to)73-88
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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