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Speech Register Switching Causes Brain to Struggle with Comprehension

Difficult choice between ‘clerks’ and ‘dudes’


According to researchers at the HSE Centre for Language and Brain, processing a word which is markedly different in style from the rest of the sentence uses the same brain mechanisms as making sense of a semantically incongruent word. These mechanisms reflect the brain’s efforts to process an unexpected term. The study findings have been published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics. The research was financed by a grant from the Russian Government as part of the 'Science and Universities' National Project.

During conversation, people tend to swich between different registers depending on the context, eg using slang when talking to friends and sticking to a formal business vocabulary in a work meeting. Using words which are register-incongruent, such as dropping slang terms during a business meeting, is likely to cause surprise and misunderstanding. 

It has been unclear until recently how brains process such inconsistencies. In this study, the researchers analysed event-related potentials (ERPs) of the brain while processing sentences with unexpected style shifts.

The researchers selected 40 pairs of sentences; in each pair, one sentence contained a word incongruent to the overall style of the sentence, while the other one did not contain any such words. In addition, half of the sentence pairs used a neutral conversational style (except for the incongruent word) and the other half of the sentence pairs used slang.




Conversational style

During a joyful preference game, the clerks were composing fables about the employees 

During a joyful preference game, the dudes were composing fables about the employees


Getting high on the pontoon carnage, the dudes were talking bullshit about the mollies 

Getting high on the pontoon carnage, the clerks were talking bullshit about the mollies 


While the study participants listened to the sentences, their brain activity was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG). The experiment lasted for 45 minutes. The participants were 48 native speakers of Russian aged between 18 and 42. 

Analysis of their EEG data revealed that listening to sentences with register-incongruent words elicited the so-called N400 component.

The N400 effect is usually observed in response to an unexpected or inappropriate word or a semantic anomaly in a sentence (eg ‘The child washed the curve in the sea’). This effect is believed to reflect the brain's additional effort to integrate an unexpected word that does not match the context. 

This finding confirms that a word which is stylistically out of context is more difficult for the brain to integrate into a sentence, similarly to semantic anomalies.

But in contrast to processing semantic anomalies such as metaphors, the integration of register-incongruent words into the context does not involve resolving a conflict between different meanings. Thus, we did not expect a significant P600 effect for the register-incongruent words. This means that the brain does not perceive words which are out of style as a metaphor or irony.< /span>

Olga Dragoy
Chief Research Fellow at the Centre for Language and Brain.



Text author: Anastasia Lobanova

December 20, 2022