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Neuroimage. 2008 Apr 1;40(2):923-931. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.12.006. Epub 2008 Jan 22.

Event-related potential characterisation of the Shakespearean functional shift in narrative sentence structure.

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School of Psychology, Bangor University, UK; ESRC Centre for Research on Bilingualism, Bangor University, UK. Electronic address:
School of Psychology, Bangor University, UK; Institut des Sciences Cognitives, Université de Lyon, CNRS, Bron, France.
School of English, University of Liverpool, UK.
Magnetic Resonance & Image Analysis Research Centre, University of Liverpool, UK.


Neurolinguistic studies have scrutinised the physiological consequences of disruptions in the flow of language comprehension produced by violations of meaning, syntax, or both. Some 400 years ago, Shakespeare already crafted verses in which the functional status of words was changed, as in "to lip a wanton in a secure couch". Here, we tested the effect of word class conversion as used by Shakespeare--the functional shift--on event-related brain potential waves traditionally reported in neurophysiolinguistics: the left anterior negativity (LAN), the N400, and the P600. Participants made meaningfulness decisions to sentences containing (a) a semantic incongruity, (b) a functional shift, (c) a double violation, or (d) neither a semantic incongruity nor a syntactic violation. The Shakespearean functional shift elicited significant LAN and P600 modulations but failed to modulate the N400 wave. This provides evidence that words which had their functional status changed triggered both an early syntactic evaluation process thought to be mainly automatic and a delayed re-evaluation/repair process that is more controlled, but semantic integration required no additional processing. We propose that this dissociation between syntactic and semantic evaluation enabled Shakespeare to create dramatic effects without diverting his public away from meaning.

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