Morphological Aspects of Language Processing

Morphological Aspects of Language Processing

Morphological Aspects of Language Processing

Morphological Aspects of Language Processing


It is now well established that phonological -- and orthographic -- codes play a crucial role in the recognition of isolated words and in understanding the sequences of words that comprise a sentence. However, words and sentences are organized with respect to morphological as well as phonological components. It is thus unfortunate that the morpheme has received relatively little attention in the experimental literature, either from psychologists or linguists. Due to recent methodological developments, however, now is an opportune time to address morphological issues.

In the experimental literature, there is a tendency to examine various psycholinguistic processes in English and then to assume that the account given applies with equal significance to English and to other languages. Written languages differ, however, in the extent to which they capture phonological as contrasted with morphological units. Moreover, with respect to the morpheme, languages differ in the principle by which morphemes are connected to form new words.

This volume focuses on morphological processes in word recognition and reading with an eye toward comparing morphological processes with orthographic and phonological processes. Cross-language comparisons are examined as a tool with which to probe universal linguistic processes, and a variety of research methodologies are described. Because it makes the experimental literature in languages other than English more accessible, this book is expected to be of interest to many readers. It also directs attention to the subject of language processing in general -- an issue which is of central interest to cognitive psychologists and linguists as well as educators and clinicians.


Linguistic analysis of the lexical elements of a language reveals that many words have internal morphological structure. Word bases and affixes recur in different words, and, to a degree, bases may be associated with a common core of meaning; for their part, affixes may convey a meaning (e.g. un- in English) or may subserve a particular grammatical function. What does this have to do with the psychology of knowing a language?

It must have something to do with it, for language users use sublexical morphological elements of words productively. When we coin a new word (e.g., videocassette recorder), we may do so by putting existing morphemes into new combinations. Further, such new words, used in a sentence, acquire the appropriate inflections for their syntactic class and role in the sentence (I have two videocassette recorders.). Accordingly, there is not only a linguistics of morphology to be understood, there is a psychology as well. Following the lead of Senator Howard Baker, we should ask: What do language users know about morphology and when do we come to know it? More than that, we have to step back from the psychology of the individual to understand how language use fosters change in language forms. Why does the transparent videocassette recorder become the opaque VCR, and why do meanings of coined derived words drift? Why do fantastic, terrific, awful, and, more recently, awesome not retain the meanings of their original base forms fantasy, terrify, and awe, respectively?

To gain insight into possible answers to these questions and others, I urge researchers in the area of morphology to read every chapter in this volume, not just those closest to their own research interests. Having read the chapters before . . .

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