The interlocking roles of lexical, syntactic and semantic processing in language comprehension has been the subject of longstanding debate. Recently, the cortical response to a frequency-tagged linguistic stimulus has been shown to track the rate of phrase and sentence, as well as syllable, presentation. This could be interpreted as evidence for the hierarchical processing of speech, or as a response to the repetition of grammatical category. To examine the extent to which hierarchical structure plays a role in language processing we recorded EEG from human participants as they listen to isochronous streams of monosyllabic words. Comparing responses to sequences in which grammatical category is strictly alternating and chosen such that two-word phrases can be grammatically constructed – cold food loud room – or is absent – rough give ill tell – showed cortical entrainment at the two-word phrase rate was only present in the grammatical condition. Thus, grammatical category repetition alone does not yield entertainment at higher level than a word. On the other hand, cortical entrainment was reduced for the mixed-phrase condition that contained two-word phrases but no grammatical category repetition – that word send less – which is not what would be expected if the measured entrainment reflected purely abstract hierarchical syntactic units. Our results support a model in which word-level grammatical category information is required to build larger units.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience