Daniele Panizza (Göttingen)

Neural signatures of pragmatic violations in adults and children

Pragmatic violations are generated by sentences such as (1a), which can be pragmatically strengthened via scalar implicature (1b), in a context that does not support their scalarly enriched interpretation.

a. The Hedgehog has some of the keys.
b. The Hedgehog has some but not all of the keys.

For example, sentence (1a), interpreted as (1b), generates a pragmatic violation when evaluated in a situation in which the hedgehog has all of the relevant keys in the given context.

We report on two ERP studies investigating pragmatic violations in 3- to 4-year-old children and adults. One study provides evidence for the hypothesis that young learners are equipped with the capacity of generating scalar implicatures at already three years of age, and that their cognitive system reacts differently to pragmatic violation as compared to semantic (i.e. truth-conditional) mismatches. The second study confirms previous findings showing that pragmatic and semantic violations have different neural signatures: while only negativities are elicited by pragmatic violations (either sustained negativities or N400-like effects), sustained positivities or both negative and positive waves (e.g. N400-like effects followed by Frontal P600) are elicited by semantic mismatches. Yet, the processing of both kind of violations is facilitated roughly to the same extent by prior visual presentation of a picture representing the meaning of the sentence inducing the mismatch. Third, the results from both studies do not support probabilistic approaches of implicature processing, according to which pragmatic and semantic mismatches are the mere result of the violation of probabilistic expectations that are argued to affect the N400 component in ERP studies.