LINGUIST List 14.1233

Thu May 1 2003

Review: Psycholinguistics: Aitchison (2003)

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  1. Phaedra Royle, Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon, 3rd ed.

Message 1: Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon, 3rd ed.

Date: Thu, 01 May 2003 00:25:37 +0000
From: Phaedra Royle <>
Subject: Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon, 3rd ed.

Aitchison, Jean (2003) Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the
Mental Lexicon, 3rd ed., Blackwell Publishing.

Announced at

Phaedra Royle, 
School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill University

Words in the Mind presents a theoretical background to the mental
lexicon. It discusses how words are learned, dissected, stored and
produced. This book is an introductory text intended for the
undergraduate scholar or layman, although a more knowledgeable public
might find it an interesting introduction to the field of
psycholinguistics, in particular as it relates to the mental lexicon.

The book is divided into four sections, ''Aims and Evidence'', on what
the data are and what we want to do with it; Basic Ingredients,
presents different elements from which words are 'made'; ''Newcomers''
spans word creation, semantic drift and lexical acquisition; while
''The Overall Picture'' discusses models of the mental lexicon. Each
section is subdivided into chapters. The book also contains a Notes
section, a Bibliography and an Index.

In 1987, Jean Aitchison published the first edition of this text on
the Mental Lexicon. It has since become a reference in the field,
especially as an introductory text to the theoretical issues
surrounding the representation and processing of words. In this book,
theoretical issues such as semantic networks, lexical categories,
phonological representations, neology and others, are presented in a
straightforward manner not overburdened by psycholinguistic
jargon. Theoretical notions are illustrated using text (often poems),
analogy and visual props in the form of graphs, comic strips and
diagrams. Other more ''classic'' types of data (slips of the tongue,
aphasias, tips-of-the-tongue) are also included. The book is divided
into 21 chapters, which are very short -- rarely spanning more than
ten pages -- thus making the information quite easy to assimilate. The
book is thus approachable and user-friendly. One caveat is the fact
that all notes are at the end of the book in a Notes section. Since
most of the notes are simply references, I believe it would have been
more judicious to include them in the text, put them as footnotes, or
include them at the end of each chapter.

Words in the mind is a seminal text on the mental lexicon, now in its
third edition. The author notes in the preface that substantial
changes have been made to previous editions, in order to incorporate
numerous findings that have been made in this expanding field of
study. For example, an additional chapter on meaning change has been
added, and other modifications have been made to already-existing
chapters. However, I was left with the nagging feeling that the text
is dated and is lacking in essential information from the field. One
area of strong interest -- morphological processing -- seems to have
been overlooked in a number of ways. For one, in the chapter on word
recognition (Organized Guesswork: Recognizing words), Aitchison
states: ''In Speech recognition [...] speakers flash up on their
mental screen [...] any word that is consistent with what they hear,
then make use of all the available evidence -- syntactic and semantic
- to narrow down the possibilities. The more information they are
able to bring to bear on the situation, the faster they can come to a
decision. [...] People start doing this as soon as they hear any part
of a word.''(p. 235) I believe that this simplification of research
data may be misleading. Although it is possible that semantic and
phonological information might help one recognize a word, these
effects are not equal and are most probably not all active at the same
time, from stimulus onset. In fact, it has been proposed that semantic
and syntactic effects found in word recognition research can be
attributed to response bias effects, especially since they can
disappear when lexical decision is speeded up, and thus more
automatic. In addition, it has been shown that semantically and
syntactically ambiguous forms (bank and bug_N vs. bug_V) can activate
their multiple meanings, even when context highly constrains a
specific interpretation of a word, suggesting that semantics and
syntax do not necessarily help us arrive at the appropriate meaning of
a word (Cutler, 1995).

Research from visual word recognition also shows that these effects
are neither necessarily simultaneous nor equal. Using primed visual
recognition tasks, Feldman and Prostko (2002) showed that
orthographic, morphological and semantic effects are of different
magnitudes and different time courses across different tasks (lexical
decision, naming, and go/no go naming). Morphological effects are
systematically stronger and appear earlier than semantic effects,
across tasks. Orthographic effects, also usually less strong than
morphological ones, vary depending on the time between presentation of
the prime and target, and depending on the task. In some cases, they
can be null or inhibitory.

Finally, morphological priming effects are never equal to, and are
usually quite different from, the addition of orthographic and
semantic priming effects. It is likely that some of these type and
time constraints on priming are indicative of the organization of the
lexicon, and that morphological structure is the preferred mode of
early lexical access, while semantic knowledge comes in at a later,
more controlled stage. Finally, in the area of neuroimaging, different
time courses are found for the processing of different language
components. Specific event related brain potentials (ERPs) have shown
activation at different time windows in language processing. Mismatch
negativity responses (MNRs) are typically found early on (between 100
and 250 ms) in phonological processing (Dehaene-Lambertz, Dupoux, &
Gout, 2000). Left anterior negativity (LAN) patterns appear, around
100-300 ms after stimulus, in the processing of syntactic
violations. The N400 occurs when processing semantically incongruous
words (e.g. I went to the zoo to see the judge), approximately 400
milliseconds after stimulus offset. A positive brain potential appears
at around the same time if the sentence is appropriate. It thus seems
to reflect semantic integration. Finally, the P600 is related to
grammatical violation of syntax (agreement, for example) and the
reanalysis of garden-path sentences, and appears typically 600 ms
after stimulus offset. It has been argued to reflect some sort of
repair process (Gunter, Frederici, & Schreifers, 2000).

The data here is probably too complex to be included as such in the
book, but it seems to indicate that the time-course of activation of
different linguistic components is important for language
recognition. These data do not support the notion that all information
is available or used immediately when a word is perceived.

Another area that could have been expanded on concerns the roles of
productivity and transparency of derivational processes in word
processing. In the chapter on word structure (Bits of Words: The
internal architecture of words), Aitchison discusses the issue of
words with different suffix types (# or +, using a Kiparskian level
morphology, 1982), and of how these are processed by the language
user. Aitchison proposes that plus-type affixed words are probably not
decomposed because of their idiosyncrasy, but that evidence bearing on
the hash-type suffixed words is not conclusive. She states that
''[t]hey are probably firmly fixed in common words, otherwise there
might be far more errors, such as *goodism instead of goodness'', and
goes on to mention ''[s]o far, experimental evidence on this point has
not been mentioned. Unfortunately, experiments which have tried to
examine this question are somewhat inconclusive, partly because they
have failed to distinguish between different languages, different
suffixes types and differences between frequency of use.''(p. 134)
Apart from the fact that the research cited to support this claim all
date from 1993 or before, I would like to mention that there has been
a wealth of experiments on derivational processes that pay attention
to factors such as language, suffix type and productivity. Tsapkini,
Kehayia and Jarema (1999) have specifically investigated the effects
of phonological change between the stem and derived form in English
word recognition (simple visual, primed visual and cross-modal primed
lexical decision). They have shown that word recognition is more rapid
when derivational processes are phonologically transparent, while
opaque forms show slowed recognition. Bertram, Laine and Virkkala
(2000) studied effects of frequency and productivity in word
acquisition by young Finnish-speakers. They found that morpheme type
and frequency had an effect on word recognition. Overall, children
were better at recognizing multi-morphemic words than monomorphemic
ones matched for length and frequency, showing that a morphological
analysis strategy can help word recognition. They found that this
effect was stronger in low-frequency words. They also found that in
high-frequency words, recognition of words with less productive
suffixes is poorer than for other word types. Based on data from Dutch
and Finnish, Bertram, Schreuder & Baayen (2000) proposed that three
factors influence whether a word will be stored or decomposed during
lexical access. These are word formation type, productivity and
affixal homonymy (the same form serving multiple semantic or syntactic
uses). There is much recent data in English and in other languages on
suffix types and their processing.

These two highlighted examples are unfortunate, since morphological
processing is one of the areas in psycholinguistics where there are
strong debates, interactions and collaborations between linguists and
psycholinguists. It is a hot topic area where research is ongoing and
active. To present it as succinctly as the author has done does not
serve the field and it does not highlight the excitement generated by
the research. Nor does this book reflect the current state of
knowledge on this issue.

In conclusion, I would only recommend using this book with additional
course materials, most probably more recent articles on selected
topics. The text can be used as a starting point for discussion but
needs to be approached with a critical mind.


Bertram, R., Laine, M., & Virkkala, M. M. (2000) The role of
derivational morphology in vocabulary acquisition: Get by with a
little help from my morpheme friends. Scandinavian Journal of
Psychology. 41(4):287-296.

Bertram, R., Schreuder, R., & Baayen, R. H. (2000) The balance of
storage and computation in morphological processing: The role of word
formation type, affixal homonymy, and productivity. Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 26:489-511.

Cutler, A. (1995) Spoken word recognition and production. In Miller &
Eimas (eds.) Speech, language, and communication. San Diego, CA:
Academic Press. (pp. 97-136.)

Dehaene-Lambertz, G., Dupoux, E., & Gout, A. (2000)
Electrophysiological correlates of phonological processing: A
cross-linguistic study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience,

Feldman, L. B. & Prostko, B. (2002) Graded Aspects of Morphological
Processing: Tasks and Processing Time. Brain and Language, 81:12-27.

Gunter, T. C., Frederici, A. D., & Schreifers, H. (2000) Syntactic
Gender and Semantic Expectancy: ERPs Reveal Early Autonomy and Late
Interaction. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 12(4):556-568.

Kiparsky, P. (1982) Lexical morphology and phonology. In I. S. Yang
(ed.), Linguistics in the Morning Calm, 2 (pp. 3-91). Seoul: Hanshin.

Tsapkini, K., Kehayia, E. & Jarema, G. (1999) Does phonological change
play a role in the recognition of derived forms across modalities?
Brain and Language, 68(1-2):318-323.


Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Universit´┐Ż de
Montr´┐Żal. Her interests lie in psycholinguistics, language disorders
(Specific Language Impairment), language acquisition and
morphology. Her thesis investigated lexical access in
language-impaired French-speaking adolescents and adults. She is
presently carrying out postdoctoral research on early language
acquisition in French-speaking children with and without language
delay at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill
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