The present event-related potential (ERP) study examined the role of tone and segmental information in Cantonese word processing. To this end, participants listened to sentences that were either semantically correct or contained a semantically incorrect word. Semantically incorrect words differed from the most expected sentence completion at the tone level, at the segmental level, or at both levels. All semantically incorrect words elicited an increased frontal negativity that was maximal 300 msec following word onset and an increased centroparietal positivity that was maximal 650 msec following word onset. There were differences between completely incongruous words and the other two violation conditions with respect to the latency and amplitude of the ERP effects. These differences may be due to differences in the onset of acoustic deviation of the presented from the expected word and different mechanisms involved in the processing of complete as compared to partial acoustic deviations. Most importantly, however, tonally and segmentally induced semantic violations were comparable. This suggests that listeners access tone and segmental information at a similar point in time and that both types of information play comparable roles during word processing in Cantonese.

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