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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

December 2014, Vol. 26, No. 12, Pages 2762-2777
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00681)
© 2014 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Context Predicts Word Order Processing in Broca's Region
Article PDF (528.77 KB)

The function of the left inferior frontal gyrus (L-IFG) is highly disputed. A number of language processing studies have linked the region to the processing of syntactical structure. Still, there is little agreement when it comes to defining why linguistic structures differ in their effects on the L-IFG. In a number of languages, the processing of object-initial sentences affects the L-IFG more than the processing of subject-initial ones, but frequency and distribution differences may act as confounding variables. Syntactically complex structures (like the object-initial construction in Danish) are often less frequent and only viable in certain contexts. With this confound in mind, the L-IFG activation may be sensitive to other variables than a syntax manipulation on its own. The present fMRI study investigates the effect of a pragmatically appropriate context on the processing of subject-initial and object-initial clauses with the IFG as our ROI. We find that Danish object-initial clauses yield a higher BOLD response in L-IFG, but we also find an interaction between appropriateness of context and word order. This interaction overlaps with traditional syntax areas in the IFG. For object-initial clauses, the effect of an appropriate context is bigger than for subject-initial clauses. This result is supported by an acceptability study that shows that, given appropriate contexts, object-initial clauses are considered more appropriate than subject-initial clauses. The increased L-IFG activation for processing object-initial clauses without a supportive context may be interpreted as reflecting either reinterpretation or the recipients' failure to correctly predict word order from contextual cues.