The interaction of lexical tone, intonation and semantic context in on-line spoken word recognition: an ERP study on Cantonese Chinese

Carmen Kung, Dorothee J Chwilla, Herbert Schriefers
Neuropsychologia 2014, 53: 293-309
In two ERP experiments, we investigate the on-line interplay of lexical tone, intonation and semantic context during spoken word recognition in Cantonese Chinese. Experiment 1 shows that lexical tone and intonation interact immediately. Words with a low lexical tone at the end of questions (with a rising question intonation) lead to a processing conflict. This is reflected in a low accuracy in lexical identification and in a P600 effect compared to the same words at the end of a statement. Experiment 2 shows that a strongly biasing semantic context leads to much better lexical-identification performance for words with a low tone at the end of questions and to a disappearance of the P600 effect. These results support the claim that semantic context plays a major role in disentangling the tonal information from the intonational information, and thus, in resolving the on-line conflict between intonation and tone. However, the ERP data indicate that the introduction of a semantic context does not entirely eliminate on-line processing problems for words at the end of questions. This is revealed by the presence of an N400 effect for words with a low lexical tone and for words with a high-mid lexical tone at the end of questions. The ERP data thus show that, while semantic context helps in the eventual lexical identification, it makes the deviation of the contextually expected lexical tone from the actual acoustic signal more salient.

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