Real-time roots of meaning change: Electrophysiology reveals the contextual-modulation processing basis of synchronic variation in the location-possession domain

AbstractThe present study seeks to substantiate a cognitively-grounded model of synchronic meaning variation and diachronic meaning change. We propose that inter-comprehender variability in CONTEXT-SENSITIVITY drives variation in word-meanings along conceptual structure pathways; we test this model through English have and its underlying location-possession conceptual structure. Through acceptability ratings, self-paced reading times, and ERPs, we show that relevant context can facilitate the dispreferred but plausible locative interpretation of a have-sentence–the degree of facilitation is predicted by individual differences in CONTEXT- SENSITIVITY, indexed here by gender and Autism Quotient. Altogether, our results suggest that the variation of have-sentences’ meanings is principled due to its unified conceptual structure, and that conceptual structure together with context cooperate in guiding comprehension by modulating the salience of competing variants in real-time. Ultimately, diachronic change is naturally emergent from this model of normal language processing.

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