Some natural languages grammatically allow different types of changing word orders, such as object scrambling and topicalization. Scrambling and topicalization are more related to syntax and semantics/phonology, respectively. Here we hypothesized that scrambling should activate the left frontal regions, while topicalization would affect the bilateral temporal regions. To examine such distinct effects in our functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we targeted the Kaqchikel Maya language, a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala. In Kaqchikel, the syntactically canonical word order is verb-object-subject (VOS), but at least three non-canonical word orders (i.e., SVO, VSO, and OVS) are also grammatically allowed. We used a sentence-picture matching task, in which the participants listened to a short Kaqchikel sentence and judged whether a picture matched the meaning of the sentence. The advantage of applying this experimental paradigm to an understudied language such as Kaqchikel is that it will allow us to validate the universality of linguistic computation in the brain. We found that the conditions with scrambled sentences [+scrambling] elicited significant activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus and lateral premotor cortex, both of which have been proposed as grammar centers, indicating the effects of syntactic loads. In contrast, the conditions without topicalization [-topicalization] resulted in significant activation in bilateral Heschl's gyrus and superior temporal gyrus, demonstrating that the syntactic and phonological processes were clearly dissociated within the language areas. Moreover, the pre-supplementary motor area and left superior/middle temporal gyri were activated under relatively demanding conditions, suggesting their supportive roles in syntactic or semantic processing. To exclude any semantic/phonological effects of the object-subject word orders, we performed direct comparisons while making the factor of topicalization constant, and observed localized activations in the left inferior frontal gyrus and lateral premotor cortex. These results establish that the types of scrambling and topicalization have different impacts on the specified language areas. These findings further indicate that the functional roles of these left frontal and temporal regions involve linguistic aspects themselves, namely syntax versus semantics/phonology, rather than output/input aspects of speech processing.
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