Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning New Meanings for Old Words: Effects of Semantic Relatedness

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning New Meanings for Old Words: Effects of Semantic Relatedness

Article excerpt

Published online: 22 May 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Changes to our everyday activities mean that adult language users need to learn new meanings for previously unambiguous words. For example, we need to learn that a "tweet" is not only the sound a bird makes, but also a short message on a social networking site. In these experiments, adult participants learned new fictional meanings for words with a single dominant meaning (e.g., "ant") by reading paragraphs that described these novel meanings. Explicit recall of these meanings was significantly better when there was a strong semantic relationship between the novel meaning and the existing meaning. This relatedness effect emerged after relatively brief exposure to the meanings (Experiment 1), but it persisted when training was extended across 7 days (Experiment 2) and when semantically demanding tasks were used during this extended training (Experiment 3). A lexical decision task was used to assess the impact of learning on online recognition. In Experiment 3, participants responded more quickly to words whose new meaning was semantically related than to those with an unrelated meaning. This result is consistent with earlier studies showing an effect of meaning relatedness on lexical decision, and it indicates that these newly acquired meanings become integrated with participants' preexisting knowledge about the meanings of words.

Keywords Semantic ambiguity . Language acquisition . Word learning . Semantic priming . Lexical ambiguity


Adults often need to learn new meanings for words that are already well established in their mental lexicon. This phenomenon can be driven by changes in the language itself, with new word meanings emerging to keep up with new technologies (Blank, 1999). For example, the development of computers required adults to learn new meanings for the words "mouse," "window," "virus," "web," and so forth. More recently, social networking websites have resulted in new, highly specific meanings for the verbs to "friend," to "post," and to "tweet." Adults may also learn new word meanings when they join a new social, academic, or geographical community. For example, someone taking up rowing would need to learn new meanings for the words "catch," "square," and "feather," while students of statistics must learn specific new meanings for the words "variable," "dependent," "normal," and "significant."

One important characteristic of these new word meanings is that they are often semantically related to the existing meanings of the words, in terms of their physical properties (e.g., "mouse"), function (e.g., "virus"), or other conceptual properties. This form of ambiguity between semantically related word senses is also ubiquitous in the existing meanings of words. For example, the word "run" has up to 35 different related senses (e.g., "the athlete runs the race," "the politician runs for election," or "the car runs on petrol"; Parks, Ray, & Bland, 1998). Thus, when learning a new sense for an existing word, people add to their already extensive repertoires of words for which they know multiple different senses. This form of ambiguity between related word senses (polysemy) can be contrasted with homonymy, in which, due to a historical accident, a single word form corresponds to multiple unrelated meanings (e.g., "tree bark" vs. "dog's bark"). This form of semantic ambiguity is far less common than polysemy (Rodd, Gaskell, & Marslen-Wilson, 2002) and may correspond to new meanings that are only loosely related to the original meaning- for example, "google" (or "googol") originally referred to the number 1×10100, which has no obvious or transparent relationship to searching for information on the Internet.

Existing studies looking at how adults learn about ambiguous words have shown that adults are highly skilled at working out the meanings of novel word senses (Clark and Gerrig 1983; Frisson and Pickering 2007) and at adjusting their preferences for known word meanings (Rodd, Lopez Cutrin, Millar, & Davis, 2012). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.