An FMRI study of grammatical morpheme processing associated with nouns and verbs in Chinese

PLoS One. 2013 Oct 11;8(10):e74952. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0074952. eCollection 2013.


This study examined whether the degree of complexity of a grammatical component in a language would impact on its representation in the brain through identifying the neural correlates of grammatical morpheme processing associated with nouns and verbs in Chinese. In particular, the processing of Chinese nominal classifiers and verbal aspect markers were investigated in a sentence completion task and a grammaticality judgment task to look for converging evidence. The Chinese language constitutes a special case because it has no inflectional morphology per se and a larger classifier than aspect marker inventory, contrary to the pattern of greater verbal than nominal paradigmatic complexity in most European languages. The functional imaging results showed BA47 and left supplementary motor area and superior medial frontal gyrus more strongly activated for classifier processing, and the left posterior middle temporal gyrus more responsive to aspect marker processing. We attributed the activation in the left prefrontal cortex to greater processing complexity during classifier selection, analogous to the accounts put forth for European languages, and the left posterior middle temporal gyrus to more demanding verb semantic processing. The overall findings significantly contribute to cross-linguistic observations of neural substrates underlying processing of grammatical morphemes from an analytic and a classifier language, and thereby deepen our understanding of neurobiology of human language.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Asian Continental Ancestry Group / psychology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Motor Cortex / physiology*
  • Phonetics*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Semantics*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology*

Grant support

This study was supported by a General Research Fund from the Research Grant Council of Hong Kong (HKU 746608H). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.