Back to list

Detail of contribution

Auteur: Karen BOHN

Co-Auteur(s): Kai ALTER, Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, United Kingdom Richard WIESE, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany Ulrike DOMAHS, Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany

The processing of rhythm in English and German

Abstract/Résumé: Languages like German and English, besides other languages, show a preference for rhythmical alternation, a phenomenon mostly discussed as the Rhythm Rule (Liberman & Prince, 1977). It has not only been shown that a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables is advantageous during speech perception (Cutler & Foss, 1977) and in language acquisition (Jusczyk, 1999), but also that the brain reacts to even subtle rhythmic deviations in language (Magne et al., 2007; Schmidt-Kassow & Kotz, 2009; Rothermich et al., 2010). Thus, not only lexical stress but also a harmonic rhythmical structure is essential for language processing. The studies presented here focus on the influence of rhythmic expectancies, i.e. the alternation of strong and weak beats within a linguistic domain, on cognitive processing. Therefore, we examined the processing of stress shifts induced by the Rhythm Rule, and compared them with rhythmical violations, i.e. stress clashes and lapses. While previous studies investigated solely the influence of the Rhythm Rule on speech production and judgments of stress perception (English: Grabe & Warren, 1995; Vogel et al., 1995; German: Mengel, 2000; Wagner & Fischenbeck, 2002; Bohn et al., 2011), our question was how the brain reacts to this rhythmical phenomenon. How are specific kinds of stress shifts or violations of the Rhythm Rule processed in English and German, two languages in which the Rhythm Rule operates? To explore whether native speakers of English and German expect strong and weak syllables to alternate or whether rhythmical deviations are tolerated and not detected, a study using event-related potentials (ERPs) was conducted for each language. During an EEG measurement, participants listened to sentences which obtained either well-formed or ill-formed rhythmic structures, which are generally allowed but marked in English respectively German (stress clashes and stress lapses). The results show that deviations from the Rhythm Rule are perceived and treated differently by the brain from well-formed structures during processing in both languages. Furthermore, an N400 effect was found for stress shifted words in both languages, which shows that irregular structures are costly for language processing. Due to strong rhythmic expectancies, English as well as German native speakers are very sensitive to rhythmically ill-formed structures, as reflected by the components obtained. Hence, these studies confirm the importance of the Rhythm Rule postulated by metrical theory.