Electrophysiological differentiation of phonological and semantic integration in word and sentence contexts.
During auditory language comprehension, listeners need to rapidly extract meaning from the continuous speech-stream. It is a matter of debate when and how contextual information constrains the activation of lexical representations in meaningful contexts. Electrophysiological studies of spoken language comprehension have identified an event-related potential (ERP) that was sensitive to phonological properties of speech, which was termed the phonological mismatch negativity (PMN). With the PMN, early lexical processing could potentially be distinguished from processes of semantic integration in spoken language comprehension. However, the sensitivity of the PMN to phonological processing per se has been questioned, and it has additionally been suggested that the "PMN" is not separable from the N400, an ERP that is sensitive to semantic aspects of the input. Here, we investigated whether or not a separable PMN exists and if it reflects purely phonological aspects of the speech input. In the present experiment, ERPs were recorded from healthy young adults (N=24) while they listened to sentences and word lists, in which we manipulated semantic and phonological expectation and congruency of the final word. ERPs sensitive to phonological processing were elicited only when phonological expectancy was violated in lists of words, but not during normal sentential processing. This suggests a differential role of phonological processing in more or less meaningful contexts and indicates a very early influence of the overall context on lexical processing in sentences.
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