Not unlike the tonal system in Chinese, Japanese habitually attaches pitch accents to the production of words. However, in contrast to Chinese, few homophonic word-pairs are really distinguished by pitch accents (Shibata & Shibata, 1990). This predicts that pitch accent plays a small role in lexical selection for Japanese language comprehension. The present study investigated whether native Japanese speakers necessarily use pitch accent in the processing of accent-contrasted homophonic pairs (e.g., ame [LH] for 'candy' and ame [HL] for 'rain') measuring electroencephalographic (EEG) potentials. Electrophysiological evidence (i.e., N400) was obtained when a word was semantically incorrect for a given context but not for incorrectly accented homophones. This suggests that pitch accent indeed plays a minor role when understanding Japanese.
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