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Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2011 Jan;35(3):407-26. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.04.007. Epub 2010 May 6.

Nouns and verbs in the brain: a review of behavioural, electrophysiological, neuropsychological and imaging studies.

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University College London, UK.


In the past 30 years there has been a growing body of research using different methods (behavioural, electrophysiological, neuropsychological, TMS and imaging studies) asking whether processing words from different grammatical classes (especially nouns and verbs) engage different neural systems. To date, however, each line of investigation has provided conflicting results. Here we present a review of this literature, showing that once we take into account the confounding in most studies between semantic distinctions (objects vs. actions) and grammatical distinction (nouns vs. verbs), and the conflation between studies concerned with mechanisms of single word processing and those studies concerned with sentence integration, the emerging picture is relatively clear-cut: clear neural separability is observed between the processing of object words (nouns) and action words (typically verbs), grammatical class effects emerge or become stronger for tasks and languages imposing greater processing demands. These findings indicate that grammatical class per se is not an organisational principle of knowledge in the brain; rather, all the findings we review are compatible with two general principles described by typological linguistics as underlying grammatical class membership across languages: semantic/pragmatic, and distributional cues in language that distinguish nouns from verbs. These two general principles are incorporated within an emergentist view which takes these constraints into account.

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