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Review of  Words in the Mind

Reviewer: Phaedra Royle
Book Title: Words in the Mind
Book Author: Jean Aitchison
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Cognitive Science
Issue Number: 14.1233

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Date: Wed, 30 Apr 2003 13:23:42 -0500
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.

Phaedra Royle, School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, McGill

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,

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, 12(4):635-647.

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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Phaedra Royle holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Université de Montréal. 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 University.

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