Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
When do listeners take into account who the speaker is? We asked people to listen to utterances whose content sometimes did not match inferences based on the identity of the speaker (e.g., “If only I looked like Britney Spears” in a male voice, or “I have a large tattoo on my back” spoken with an upper-class accent). Event-related brain responses revealed that the speaker's identity is taken into account as early as 200–300 msec after the beginning of a spoken word, and is processed by the same early interpretation mechanism that constructs sentence meaning based on just the words. This finding is difficult to reconcile with standard “Gricean” models of sentence interpretation in which comprehenders initially compute a local, context-independent meaning for the sentence (“semantics”) before working out what it really means given the wider communicative context and the particular speaker (“pragmatics”). Because the observed brain response hinges on voice-based and usually stereotype-dependent inferences about the speaker, it also shows that listeners rapidly classify speakers on the basis of their voices and bring the associated social stereotypes to bear on what is being said. According to our event-related potential results, language comprehension takes very rapid account of the social context, and the construction of meaning based on language alone cannot be separated from the social aspects of language use. The linguistic brain relates the message to the speaker immediately.