Cross-linguistic variation in the neurophysiological response to semantic processing: Evidence from anomalies at the borderline of awareness

Sarah Tune, Matthias Schlesewsky, Steven L. Small, Anthony J. Sanford, Jason Bohan, Jona Sassenhagen, Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


The N400 event-related brain potential (ERP) has played a major role in the examination of how the human brain processes meaning. For current theories of the N400, classes of semantic inconsistencies which do not elicit N400 effects have proven particularly influential. Semantic anomalies that are difficult to detect are a case in point ("borderline anomalies", e.g. "After an air crash, where should the survivors be buried?"), engendering a late positive ERP response but no N400 effect in English (Sanford, Leuthold, Bohan, & Sanford, 2011). In three auditory ERP experiments, we demonstrate that this result is subject to cross-linguistic variation. In a German version of Sanford and colleagues' experiment (Experiment 1), detected borderline anomalies elicited both N400 and late positivity effects compared to control stimuli or to missed borderline anomalies. Classic easy-to-detect semantic (non-borderline) anomalies showed the same pattern as in English (N400 plus late positivity). The cross-linguistic difference in the response to borderline anomalies was replicated in two additional studies with a slightly modified task (Experiment 2a: German; Experiment 2b: English), with a reliable LANGUAGE×ANOMALY interaction for the borderline anomalies confirming that the N400 effect is subject to systematic cross-linguistic variation. We argue that this variation results from differences in the language-specific default weighting of top-down and bottom-up information, concluding that N400 amplitude reflects the interaction between the two information sources in the form-to-meaning mapping.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-166
Number of pages20
Issue number1
Early online date18 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Parts of the research reported here were supported by a German Academic Exchange Service scholarship awarded to ST and by a grant from the German Research Foundation to IBS ( BO 2471/3-2 ). We would like to thank Laura Maffongelli, Fritzi Milde, Aidan Brennan and Fiona Weiß for assistance with the data acquisition. Some of this work was performed in the U.S. and partly funded by the NIH NIDCD under grant DC-R01-3378 to SLS.


  • Bidirectional coding account
  • Borderline anomalies
  • Bottom-up
  • Cross-linguistic differences
  • Language processing
  • Late positivity
  • N400
  • P600
  • Shallow processing
  • Top-down


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