Focus particles and prosody processing in Dutch: Evidence from ERPs

Diana V. Dimitrova, Laurie A. Stowe, Gisela Redeker, and John C.J. Hoeks, University of Groningen

The present ERP study investigated the effect of focus particles on Dutch sentence processing. Focus particles such as only are claimed to indicate focus constituents and can thus affect the interpretation of pitch accents during speech comprehension [1]. Our results show that contrastive pitch accents are unexpected in sentences without a focus particle and triggered a fronto-central positivity, most likely a P300. For sentences with a focus particle, however, there was no processing difference between accented and unaccented elements at the object noun phrase (NP) right adjacent to the focus particle. However, in a later position in the sentence, a contrastive pitch accent on the preposition NP triggered positivities resembling either P300- or P600-effects. We interpret the results as evidence that focus particles generate strong expectations for an accented focus constituent, which then 'neutralizes' the processing of an upcoming pitch accent that would normally be unexpected. The late positivity that is present at the preposition NP presumably indicates re-interpretation of the focus structure and the scope of the particle needed for the accommodation of the pitch accent.