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Semantic composition engenders an N400: evidence from Chinese compounds

Bai, Chena b; Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Inaa; Wang, Luminga; Hung, Yu-Chenb; Schlesewsky, Matthiasb c; Burkhardt, Petrab

doi: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e3282fc1eb7

This study provides evidence for the role of semantic composition in compound word processing. We examined the online processing of isolated two meaning unit compounds in Chinese, a language that uses compounding to ‘disambiguate’ meaning. Using auditory presentation, we manipulated the semantic meaning and syntactic category of the two meaning units forming a compound. Event-related brain potential-recordings revealed a significant influence of semantic information, which was reflected in an N400 signature for compounds whose meaning differed from the constituent meanings. This finding suggests that the combination of distinct constituent meanings to form an overall compound meaning consumes processing resources. By contrast, no comparable difference was observed based on syntactic category information. Our findings indicate that combinatory semantic processing at the word level correlates with N400 effects.

aIndependent Junior Research Group Neurotypology, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig

bDepartment of Germanic Linguistics, University of Marburg, Marburg

cDepartment of General and Comparative Linguistics, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Mainz, Germany

Correspondence to Dr. Petra Burkhardt, Department of Germanic Linguistics, University of Marburg, Wilhelm-Röpke-Strasse 6a, D-35032 Marburg, Germany

Tel: +49 6421 2824645; fax: +49 6421 2824558; e-mail:

Received 14 December 2007; accepted 7 February 2008

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.