Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
In linguistic theories of how sentences encode meaning, a distinction is often made between the context-free rule-based combination of lexical-semantic features of the words within a sentence (“semantics”), and the contributions made by wider context (“pragmatics”). In psycholinguistics, this distinction has led to the view that listeners initially compute a local, context-independent meaning of a phrase or sentence before relating it to the wider context. An important aspect of such a two-step perspective on interpretation is that local semantics cannot initially be overruled by global contextual factors. In two spoken-language event-related potential experiments, we tested the viability of this claim by examining whether discourse context can overrule the impact of the core lexical-semantic feature animacy, considered to be an innate organizing principle of cognition. Two-step models of interpretation predict that verb-object animacy violations, as in “The girl comforted the clock,” will always perturb the unfolding interpretation process, regardless of wider context. When presented in isolation, such anomalies indeed elicit a clear N400 effect, a sign of interpretive problems. However, when the anomalies were embedded in a supportive context (e.g., a girl talking to a clock about his depression), this N400 effect disappeared completely. Moreover, given a suitable discourse context (e.g., a story about an amorous peanut), animacy-violating predicates (“the peanut was in love”) were actually processed more easily than canonical predicates (“the peanut was salted”). Our findings reveal that discourse context can immediately overrule local lexical-semantic violations, and therefore suggest that language comprehension does not involve an initially context-free semantic analysis.