How the brain processes complex words: An event-related potential study of German verb inflections

Martina Penke, Helga Weyerts, Matthias Gross, Elke Zander, Thomas F. Münte, Harald Clahsen*

*Corresponding author for this work
    123 Citations (Scopus)


    Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded as German-speaking subjects read verbs in correct and incorrect participle forms. The critical words were presented in three different versions to three different groups of subjects, as part of a simple sentence, in a word list, and embedded in a story; for each version separate ERPs were recorded. Three types of verbs were investigated, regulars, irregulars and nonce verbs. We compared correct regular and irregular participles with incorrect ones; the latter had -(e)n on verbs that actually take -t participles (*getanz-en), or -(e)t on verbs that require -(e)n (*gelad-et). For the nonce verbs, we compared participles with the unexpected -(e)n ending with the expected -t participle forms. The ERP responses were very consistent across the three versions of the experiment: (i) incorrect irregular participles (* gelad-et) elicited a left frontotemporal negativity; (ii) incorrect regulars (* getanz-en) produced no differences to the correct ones; (iii) nonce verbs were associated with an N400 component but did not show a difference between expected and unexpected endings. We will interpret these findings with respect to psycholinguistic models of morphological processing and argue that the brain processes regularly inflected words differently from irregularly inflected ones, the latter by accessing full-form entries stored in memory and the former by a computational process that decomposes complex words into stems and affixes.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalCognitive Brain Research
    Issue number1
    Pages (from-to)37-52
    Number of pages16
    Publication statusPublished - 01.07.1997

    Research Areas and Centers

    • Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)


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