Literacy changes the way the brain processes spoken language. Most psycholinguists believe that orthographic effects on spoken language are either strategic or restricted to meta-phonological tasks. We used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to investigate the locus and the time course of orthographic effects on spoken word recognition in a semantic task. Participants were asked to decide whether a given word belonged to a semantic category (body parts). On no-go trials, words were presented that were either orthographically consistent or inconsistent. Orthographic inconsistency (i.e., multiple spellings of the same phonology) could occur either in the first or the second syllable. The ERP data showed a clear orthographic consistency effect that preceded lexical access and semantic effects. Moreover, the onset of the orthographic consistency effect was time-locked to the arrival of the inconsistency in a spoken word, which suggests that orthography influences spoken language in a time-dependent manner. The present data join recent evidence from brain imaging showing orthographic activation in spoken language tasks. Our results extend those findings by showing that orthographic activation occurs early and affects spoken word recognition in a semantic task that does not require the explicit processing of orthographic or phonological structure.

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