Spread the word: MMN brain response reveals whole-form access of discontinuous particle verbs
The status of particle verbs such as rise (…) up as either lexically stored or combinatorially assembled is an issue which so far has not been settled decisively. In this study, we use the mismatch negativity (MMN) brain response to observe neurophysiological responses to discontinuous particle verbs. The MMN can be used to distinguish between whole-form storage and combinatorial processes, as it is enhanced to stored words compared to unknown pseudowords, whereas combinatorially legal strings elicit a reduced MMN relative to ungrammatical ones. Earlier work had found larger MMNs to congruent than to incongruent verb-particle combinations when particle and verb appeared as adjacent elements, thus suggesting whole-form storage at least in this case. However, it is still possible that particle verbs discontinuously spread out across a sentence would elicit the combinatorial, grammar-violation response pattern instead. Here, we tested the brain signatures of discontinuous verb-particle combinations, orthogonally varying congruence and semantic transparency. The results show for the first time brain indices of whole-form storage for discontinuous constituents, thus arguing in favour of access to whole-form-stored lexical elements in the processing of particle verbs, irrespective of their semantic opacity. Results are discussed in the context of linguistic debates about the status of particle verbs as words, lexical elements or syntactically generated combinations. The explanation of the pattern of results within a neurobiological language model is highlighted.