Anomalous Transfer of Syntax between Languages



Vaughan-Evans A, Kuipers JR, Thierry G & Jones MW (2014) Anomalous Transfer of Syntax between Languages. Journal of Neuroscience, 34 (24), pp. 8333-8335.

Each human language possesses a set of distinctive syntactic rules. Here, we show that balanced Welsh-English bilinguals reading in English unconsciously apply a morphosyntactic rule that only exists in Welsh. The Welsh soft mutation rule determines whether the initial consonant of a noun changes based on the grammatical context (e.g., the feminine noun cath-"cat" mutates into gath in the phrase y gath-"the cat"). Using event-related brain potentials, we establish that English nouns artificially mutated according to the Welsh mutation rule (e.g., "goncert" instead of "concert") require significantly less processing effort than the same nouns implicitly violating Welsh syntax. Crucially, this effect is found whether or not the mutation affects the same initial consonant in English and Welsh, showing that Welsh syntax is applied to English regardless of phonological overlap between the two languages. Overall, these results demonstrate for the first time that abstract syntactic rules transfer anomalously from one language to the other, even when such rules exist only in one language.

bilingualism; event-related brain potentials; grammar; language rules

Journal of Neuroscience: Volume 34, Issue 24

Publication date11/06/2014
PublisherSociety for Neuroscience

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Dr Jan Rouke Kuipers

Dr Jan Rouke Kuipers

Lecturer in Psychology, Psychology