Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
A central question concerning word recognition is whether linguistic categories are processed in continuous or categorical ways, in particular, whether regular and irregular inflection is stored and processed by the same or by distinct systems. Here, we contribute to this issue by contrasting regular (regular stem, regular suffix) with semi-irregular (regular stem, irregular suffix) and irregular (irregular stem, irregular suffix) participle formation in a visual priming experiment on German verb inflection. We measured ERPs and RTs and manipulated the inflectional and meaning relatedness between primes and targets. Inflected verb targets (e.g., leite, “head”) were preceded either by themselves, by their participle (geleitet, “headed”), by a semantically related verb in the same inflection as the target (führe, “guide”) or in the participle form (geführt, “guided”), or by an unrelated verb in the same inflection (nenne, “name”). Results showed that behavioral and ERP priming effects were gradually affected by verb regularity. Regular participles produced a widely distributed frontal and parietal effect, irregular participles produced a small left parietal effect, and semi-irregular participles yielded an effect in-between these two in terms of amplitude and topography. The behavioral and ERP effects further showed that the priming because of participles differs from that because of semantic associates for all verb types. These findings argue for a single processing system that generates participle priming effects for regular, semi-irregular, and irregular verb inflection. Together, the findings provide evidence that the linguistic categories of verb inflection are processed continuously. We present a single-system model that can adequately account for such graded effects.