Background: The present study examines the involvement of syntactic and semantic/conceptual processes in the comprehension of pronouns in Dutch using the technique of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) replicating and extending an earlier study in German. Dutch and German are closely related and share the same logic in referring to non-diminutive and diminutive NPs (i.e. adding an affix which changes the syntactic gender into neutral). Both languages separate male (hij/er (he)) and female pronouns (zij/sie (she)), as well as a pronoun that refers to an entity of neutral gender, (het/es (it)). However, the neutral pronoun het in Dutch is not only a pronoun, it also is the article of a neutral noun. To investigate the influence of this word class ambiguity on pronoun resolution, as well as to establish the generality of the finding of the German study we manipulated syntactic and biological gender congruency between a personal pronoun and its antecedent in Dutch. Results: In Dutch, sentences with the word-class (pronoun/article) ambiguous pronoun het elicited an early negative shift (150-280 ms) which continued in the time frame of the N400. For sentences with a syntactically and biologically incongruent pronoun a P600 (in absence of an N400) was obtained, which was independent of the morphological form of the referent. Conclusion: The neurophysiological pattern found for Dutch stimuli was clearly different from the German study, indicating that the processing of pronouns in these two languages differs. This can be explained in terms of language specific characteristics concerning the word class ambiguous neutral pronoun het. Moreover, in contrast to the findings in the German study, there was no clear effect caused by the morphological form of the referent. Additionally, in Dutch, the pronoun resolution in sentences with a non-diminutive antecedent seems to reflect processes of revision (P600 in absence of an N400), whereas for German evidence was found for clear involvement of conceptual/semantic processes as well as structure building processes (N400/P600 complex).
Research Areas and Centers
- Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)