The emergence of the unmarked: A new perspective on the language-specific function of Broca's area

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A number of neuroimaging studies have implicated an involvement of Broca's area, particularly of the pars opercularis of the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), in the processing of complex (permuted) sentences. However, functional interpretations of this region's role range from very general (e.g., in terms of working memory) to highly specific (e.g., as supporting particular types of syntactic operations). A dissociation of these competing accounts is often impossible because in most cases, the language internal complexity of permuted sentence structures is accompanied invariably by increasing costs of a more general cognitive nature (e.g., working memory, task difficulty, and acceptability). We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to explore the precise nature of the pars opercularis activation in the processing of permuted sentences by examining the permutation of pronouns in German. Although clearly involving a permutation operation, sentences with an initial object pronoun behave like simple, subject-initial sentences (e.g., in terms of acceptability) because of a rule stating that pronouns should generally precede non-pronominal arguments. The results of the experiment show that in contrast to non-pronominal permutations, sentences with a permuted pronoun do not engender enhanced pars opercularis activation. Our findings therefore speak against both language-related working memory and transformation-based accounts of this region's role in sentence comprehension. Rather, we argue that the pars opercularis of the left IFG supports the language-specific linearization of hierarchical linguistic dependencies. Hum Brain Mapp, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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