Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
There are two views about morphology, the aspect of language concerned with the internal structure of words. One view holds that morphology is a domain of knowledge with a specific type of neurocognitive representation supported by specific brain mechanisms lateralized to left fronto-temporal cortex. The alternate view characterizes morphological effects as being a by-product of the correlation between form and meaning and where no brain area is predicted to subserve morphological processing per se. Here we provided evidence from Arabic that morphemes do have specific memory traces, which differ as a function of their functional properties. In an MMN study, we showed that the abstract consonantal root, which conveys semantic meaning (similarly to monomorphemic content words in English), elicits an MMN starting from 160 msec after the deviation point, whereas the abstract vocalic word pattern, which plays a range of grammatical roles, elicits an MMN response starting from 250 msec after the deviation point. Topographically, the root MMN has a symmetric fronto-central distribution, whereas the word pattern MMN lateralizes significantly to the left, indicating stronger involvement of left peri-sylvian areas. In languages with rich morphologies, morphemic processing seems to be supported by distinct neural networks, thereby providing evidence for a specific neuronal basis for morphology as part of the cerebral language machinery.