The Effects of Grammatical Gender on Referent Processing in German: An ERP Study

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Grammatically masculine forms can refer to men and women, but may favour male-specific interpretations. Using a match-mismatch paradigm, the present ERP study assessed how masculine grammatical gender in role nouns affects referent processing in German. Twenty participants read sentences in which a stereotypically neutral role noun (grammatically masculine or feminine) introduced a group of people. A sentence continuation specified the group as consisting in part of men or women, meaning continuations were either congruent (masculine–men, feminine–women) or incongruent (masculine–women, feminine–men) to the grammatical gender of the role noun. Incongruent continuations were expected to result in an N400-P600 complex. Between 300 and 500 ms, no N400-like effect was observed. Following masculine role nouns, all continuations were processed similarly (p = .891). Following feminine role nouns, incongruent continuations elicited more positive responses than congruent ones (p = .045). Between 500 and 800 ms, a P600-like effect was observed. For both masculine and feminine role nouns, incongruent continuations resulted in more positive responses than incongruent ones (p = .039). The results are discussed in terms of a two-stage model: Initially, the incongruency between the masculine and women continuations goes unnoticed, yet leads to processing difficulties later on, implying a male-specific interpretation.
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