How information structure influences the processing of rhythmic irregularities: ERP evidence from German phrases
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This study explores the influence of focus and givenness on the cognitive processing of rhythmic irregularities occurring in natural speech. Previous ERP studies showed that even subtle rhythmic deviations are detected by the brain if attention is directed towards the rhythmic structure. By using question-answer pairs, it was investigated whether subtle rhythmic irregularities in form of stress clashes (two adjacent stressed syllables) and stress lapses (two adjacent unstressed syllables) are still perceived when presented in post-focus position in an answer sentence and attention is directed away from them, towards the meaning of the element in narrow focus position by the preceding wh-question. Moreover, by visually presenting the lexical-semantic input of the deviating structure in the question, the influence of rhythmical and lexical properties in these two forms of rhythmic deviations are disentangled. While words in the present stress clash condition do not deviate from lexical stress, stress lapses contain deviations from metrical and lexical stress. The data reveal an early negativity effect for stress clashes but not for stress lapses, supporting the assumption that they are processed differently. The absence of a negative component for stress lapses indicates that the metrical deviation alone is not salient enough to be registered in non-focus position. Moreover, the lack of a late positive component suggests that subtle rhythmic deviations are less perceivable and hence more acceptable when presented in non-focus position. Thus, these results show that attentional shift induced by information structure influences the degree of the processing of rhythm.