The influence of sound on semantics: An ERP and pupillometry study.

The influence of sound on semantics: An ERP and pupillometry study.

First Author: Ciara Egan -- Bangor University
Additional authors/chairs: 
Filipe Cristino; Guillaume Thierry; Manon Jones
Abstract / Summary: 


Literary texts use a range of stylistic techniques, such as alliteration, rhyme, and metaphor, in order to engage reader attention. Here, we examine how use of alliteration – characterised by the repetition of sounds, usually across words – may be used both to enhance reader attention and to facilitate understanding of text.

We measured native English speaking participants’ (N=20) event related potentials and pupil dilation responses to adjective-noun word pairs (e.g., tall – tree) manipulated according to alliterative status (alliterative vs. non-alliterative) and semantic congruency (semantically related vs. unrelated).

Our results showed that congruent word pairs resulted in more effortful integration of the noun (attenuated N400 amplitudes and smaller pupil dilation), consistent with a large body of literature on congruency effects (Kutas & Federmeier, 2011). However, repetition of sound was similarly found to facilitate semantic integration, and an interaction effect showed that whereas alliteration did not particularly modulate N400 amplitude for congruent items, it specifically facilitated semantic integration for incongruent nouns. A similar pattern of results was found in the pupil dilation data.

Sound and meaning are generally considered by psycholinguists as functionally separate components of language. However, our data shows that repetition of sound can augment meaning in otherwise unrelated words. We suggest that when semantic processing is difficult, the brain uses other sources of information in an attempt to arrive at a coherent narrative. Such sound-meaning interactions likely reflect some of the basic neurocognitive effects of poetry on the mind.