Speech contains rich acoustic and linguistic information. During speech comprehension, cortical activity tracks the acoustic envelope of speech. Recent studies also observe cortical tracking of higher-level linguistic units, such as words and phrases, using synthesized speech deprived of delta-band acoustic envelope. It remains unclear, however, how cortical activity jointly encodes the acoustic and linguistic information in natural speech. Here, we investigate the neural encoding of words and demonstrate that delta-band cortical activity tracks the rhythm of multi-syllabic words when naturally listening to narratives. Furthermore, by dissociating the word rhythm from acoustic envelope, we find cortical activity primarily tracks the word rhythm during speech comprehension. When listeners attention is diverted, however, neural tracking of words diminishes, and delta-band activity becomes phase locked to the acoustic envelope. These results suggest that large-scale cortical dynamics in the delta band are primarily coupled to the rhythm of linguistic units during natural speech comprehension.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience