In languages like English or German, definite and indefinite markers serve to distinguish given/old from new information in the discourse model. Japanese, in contrast, lacks definiteness markers, but has a topic marker. The present paper examines how the information status of a noun phrase (NP) in Japanese is represented and integrated into the discourse model. An ERP experiment investigated the processing of topic-marked and non-topic-marked NPs following three different context sentences (making available a given, inferred, or new reading). The results revealed an increase in the N400 as a function of contextual cueing, i.e. the less accessible a referential expression is in the discourse model (i.e. given, inferred, new referent), the more pronounced is the amplitude of the N400. In addition, a late positivity was observed for topic shift, i.e. when topic-marked NPs occurred after contexts in which they were not already the established topic. Crucially, topic shift was facilitated by a particular semantic relation. Since acceptability ratings cannot account for the observed pattern, the positivity is considered to reflect costs from the establishment of a new discourse topic. From a cross-linguistic perspective, the data reveal that contextual cues universally influence discourse integration (N400), while processes subserving the updating of discourse structure (e.g., topic shift) differ across languages (late positivity): Discourse updating is guided by the given-new distinction in German and by topicality in Japanese (at least in canonical word order).

Discourse, ERP, Japanese, Late positivity, N400, Topic
Journal of Neurolinguistics
School of Linguistics and Language Studies

Hirotani, M, & Schumacher, P.B. (Petra B.). (2011). Context and topic marking affect distinct processes during discourse comprehension in Japanese. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 24(3), 276–292. doi:10.1016/j.jneuroling.2010.09.007