[Neuro-syntax reading group] King et al. Syntactic Categories as Lexical Features or Syntactic Heads: An MEG Approach
King, Linzen, Marantz
Are syntactic categories like noun and verb categories of stems, such that the noun and verb versions of ambiguous stems like hammer are distinct, though related, lexical items, or are syntactic categories carried by affixes attached to uncategorized roots, such that noun and verb versions of ambiguous stems are derived forms built on a single root? This paper addresses the representational question posed by syntactic categories by examining the processing of category ambiguous words. If syntactic categories are in fact categories of stems, category ambiguity should yield processing uncertainty parallel to that engendered by other forms of lexical ambiguity, such as homophony. On the other hand, if syntactic categories result from affixation, category ambiguity should yield processing uncertainty parallel to that engendered by syntactic uncertainty, at least if morphological structure reduces to syntactic structure as claimed by Distributed Morphology. A magnetoencephalographic (MEG) experiment exploiting a single word lexical decision task supports the syntactic over the lexical account of syntactic categories; category ambiguity parallels syntactic ambiguity rather than lexical ambiguity. The paper illustrates how neurolinguistic data can contribute to testing competing representational theories, but only when tight linking hypotheses are motivated connecting linguistic theory, cognitive processing, and neural responses.