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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

May 2011, Vol. 23, No. 5, Pages 1170-1179
(doi: 10.1162/jocn.2010.21430)
© 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Activating without Inhibiting: Left-edge Boundary Tones and Syntactic Processing
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Right-edge boundary tones have earlier been found to restrict syntactic processing by closing a clause for further integration of incoming words. The role of left-edge intonation, however, has received little attention to date. We show that Swedish left-edge boundary tones selectively facilitate the on-line processing of main clauses, the syntactic structure they are associated with. In spoken Swedish, main clauses are produced with a left-edge boundary tone, which is absent in subordinate clauses. Main and subordinate clauses are further distinguished syntactically by word order when containing sentence adverbs. The effects of tone and word order on the processing of embedded main, subordinate, and neutral clauses (lacking sentence adverbs) were measured using ERPs. A posterior P600 in embedded main clauses and a smaller P600 in subordinate clauses indicated that embedded clauses with sentence adverbs were structurally less expected than neutral clauses and thus were reanalyzed. The tone functioned as a cue for main clause word order, selectively reducing the P600 in embedded main clauses, without affecting the processing of subordinate or neutral clauses. Its perception was reflected in a right frontal P200 effect. The left-edge boundary tone thus seems to activate a main clause structure, albeit without suppressing alternative structures. The P600 was also preceded by a short positive effect in cases where a left-edge boundary tone was absent.