The Role of Morphological Markedness in the Processing of Number and Gender Agreement in Spanish: An Event-Related Potential Investigation

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Alemán Bañón, José ; Rothman, Jason (2016)

Supplemental data for this article can be accessed at Published online: 12 Aug 2016 Current morphological theory assumes that feature values, such as masculine and feminine or singular and plural, are asymmetrically represented. That is, one member of the opposition (e.g. feminine for gender, plural for number) is assumed to be marked, and the other one, unmarked. The present study examines how these asymmetries impact agreement resolution in Spanish. Agreement was manipulated between a noun acting as head of a relative clause and an adjective located inside the relative clause (e.g. catedral que parecía inmensa “cathedral that looked huge”). Half of the nouns were feminine (marked) and the other half, masculine (unmarked). Half of the nouns were used in the plural (marked) and the other half, in the singular (unmarked). Twenty-seven Spanish native speakers read 240 sentences while their brain activity was recorded with electroencephalography and performed a grammaticality judgment. Results showed that both number and gender violations elicited a central-posterior P600, a component associated with syntactic repair, and a late anterior negativity, argued to reflect working memory costs. Only the P600 was affected by markedness. It started earlier for violations where the mismatching feature was marked. Moreover, it was larger for errors where the mismatching feature was marked, although this amplitude modulation only emerged for number, possibly due to differences in how number and gender cues were realized (i.e. both masculine and feminine showed overt inflection, but singular was uninflected relative to plural). These results suggest that the parser is sensitive to markedness asymmetries in the course of online processing. José Alemán Bañón was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness [grant number FPDI-2013-15813].
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