Examining the evidence for an independent semantic analyzer: An ERP study in Spanish

Clare Stroud, Colin Phillips

Recent ERP findings challenge the widespread assumption that syntactic and semantic processes are tightly coupled. Syntactically well-formed sentences that are semantically anomalous due to thematic mismatches elicit a P600, the component standardly associated with syntactic anomaly. This ‘thematic P600’ effect has been attributed to detection of semantically plausible thematic relations that conflict with the surface syntactic structure of the sentence, implying a processing architecture with an independent semantic analyzer. A key finding is that the P600 is selectively sensitive to the presence of plausible verb-argument relations, and that otherwise an N400 is elicited (The hearty meal was devouring ... vs. The dusty tabletop was devouring ...: Kim & Osterhout, 2005). The current study investigates in Spanish whether the evidence for an independent semantic analyzer is better explained by a standard architecture that rapidly integrates multiple sources of lexical, syntactic, and semantic information. The study manipulated the presence of plausible thematic relations, and varied the choice of auxiliary between passive-biased fue and active-progressive biased estaba. Results show a late positivity that appeared as soon as comprehenders detected an improbable combination of subject animacy, auxiliary bias, or verb voice morphology. This effect appeared at the lexical verb in the fue conditions and at the auxiliary in the estaba conditions. The late positivity elicited by surface thematic anomalies was the same, regardless of the presence of a plausible non-surface interpretation, and no N400 effects were elicited. These findings do not implicate an independent semantic analyzer, and are compatible with standard language processing architectures.