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Hum Brain Mapp. 2007 Oct;28(10):940-9.

An fMRI study of canonical and noncanonical word order in German.

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Department of Neuropsychology, Otto von Guericke University, 39106 Magdeburg, Germany.


Understanding a complex sentence requires the processing of information at different (e.g., phonological, semantic, and syntactic) levels, the intermediate storage of this information and the unification of this information to compute the meaning of the sentence information. The present investigation homed in on two aspects of sentence processing: working memory and reanalysis. Event-related functional MRI was used in 12 healthy native speakers of German, while they read sentences. Half of the sentences had unambiguous initial noun-phrases (masculine nominative, masculine accusative) and thus signaled subject-first (canonical) or object-first (noncanonical) sentences. Noncanonical unambiguous sentences were supposed to entail greater demand on working memory, because of their more complex syntactic structure. The other half of the sentences had case-ambiguous initial noun-phrases (feminine gender). Only the second unambiguous noun-phrase (eighth position in the sentences) revealed, whether a canonical or noncanonical word order was present. Based on previous data it was hypothesized that ambiguous noncanonical sentences required a recomputation of the sentence, as subjects would initially commit to a subject first reading. In the respective contrasts two main areas of brain activation were observed. Unambiguous noncanonical sentences elicited more activation in left inferior frontal cortex relative unambiguous canonical sentences. This was interpreted in conjunction with the greater demands on working memory in the former condition. For noncanonical ambiguous relative to canonical ambiguous sentences, an activation of the left supramarginal gyrus was revealed, which was interpreted as a reflection of the reanalysis-requirements induced by this condition.

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