The mismatch negativity (MMN) is an event-related potential component that reflects pre-attentive change detection in the brain. As an electrophysiological index of processing that responds to differences in incoming consecutive stimuli, the MMN can be elicited through, for example, the presentation of two different categories of sounds in an oddball paradigm where sounds from the “standard” category occur frequently and sounds from the “deviant” category occur rarely. The specificity of what can elicit the MMN is yet to be fully defined. Here we test whether the MMN can be generated by an abstract linguistic contrast with no reliable acoustic cue. Previous studies have shown that the way in which an acoustic cue is used to elicit MMN is influenced by linguistic knowledge, but have not shown that a nonacoustic, abstract linguistic contrast can itself elicit MMN. In this study, we test the strongest interpretation of the claim that the MMN can be generated through a purely linguistic contrast by contrasting tenses in ablauting irregular English verbs (where there is no reliable acoustic cue for tense). We find that this contrast elicits a negativity, as do other linguistic contrasts previously shown to elicit MMN (a contrast between phonologically voiced and phonologically voiceless segments and a purely acoustic contrast between aspirated and unaspirated segments). The findings provide evidence that the MMN is indeed sensitive to purely abstract linguistic categories.

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Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Handling Editor: Alec Marantz

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