Syntactic Complexity and Frequency in the Neurocognitive Language System

17 Jul 2017

Prominent neurobiological models of language follow the widely accepted assumption that language comprehension requires two principal mechanisms: a lexicon storing the sound-to-meaning mapping of words, primarily involving bilateral temporal regions, and a combinatorial processor for syntactically structured items, such as phrases and sentences, localized in a left-lateralized network linking left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) and posterior temporal areas. However, recent research showing that the processing of simple phrasal sequences may engage only bilateral temporal areas, together with the claims of distributional approaches to grammar, raises the question of whether frequent phrases are stored alongside individual words in temporal areas. In this fMRI study, we varied the frequency of words and of short and long phrases in English. If frequent phrases are indeed stored, then only less frequent items should generate selective left frontotemporal activation, because memory traces for such items would be weaker or not available in temporal cortex. Complementary univariate and multivariate analyses revealed that, overall, simple words (verbs) and long phrases engaged LIFG and temporal areas, whereas short phrases engaged bilateral temporal areas, suggesting that syntactic complexity is a key factor for LIFG activation. Although we found a robust frequency effect for words in temporal areas, no frequency effects were found for the two phrasal conditions. These findings support the conclusion that long and short phrases are analyzed, respectively, in the left frontal network and in a bilateral temporal network but are not retrieved from memory in the same way as simple words during spoken language comprehension.