Structure and meaning in Chinese: An ERP study of idioms

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Recent electrophysiological evidence suggests that the analysis of structure and the processing of meaning may differ across languages and across types of materials being processed. In this study we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine the interplay between structural analysis and meaning processing in Chinese idioms. Our results revealed that N400 effects reflect graded semantic distances in our experimental conditions involving synonyms, semantic violations, and combined semantic and syntactic violations. The P600 effects were uniform across these experimental conditions. There was no difference between the semantic only and the combined violation conditions with regard to either the N400 or the P600 component. These patterns suggest that in Chinese, unlike in other languages, meaning integration does not depend on the intactness of structural information. They also suggest, consistently with some previous studies, that P600 is not only an index of syntactic processes but may be a more general index of the processing of linguistic or perceptual well-formedness in structure in highly constraining context.