Differential electrophysiological effects for regular and irregular linguistic forms have been used to support the theory that grammatical rules are encoded using a dedicated cognitive mechanism. The alternative hypothesis is that language systematicities are encoded probabilistically in a way that does not categorically distinguish rule-like and irregular forms. In the present study, this matter was investigated more closely by focusing specifically on whether the regular-irregular distinction in English past tenses is categorical or graded. We compared the ERP priming effects of regulars (baked-bake), vowel-change irregulars (sang-sing), and "suffixed" irregulars that display a partial regularity (suffixed irregular verbs, e.g., slept-sleep), as well as forms that are related strictly along formal or semantic dimensions. Participants performed a visual lexical decision task with either visual (Experiment 1) or auditory prime (Experiment 2). Stronger N400 priming effects were observed for regular than vowel-change irregular verbs, whereas suffixed irregulars tended to group with regular verbs. Subsequent analyses decomposed early versus late-going N400 priming, and suggested that differences among forms can be attributed to the orthographic similarity of prime and target. Effects of morphological relatedness were observed in the later-going time period, however, we failed to observe true regular-irregular dissociations in either experiment. The results indicate that morphological effects emerge from the interaction of orthographic, phonological, and semantic overlap between words.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Cognitive Neuroscience