Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Examining Assortativity in the Mental Lexicon: Evidence from Word Associations

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Examining Assortativity in the Mental Lexicon: Evidence from Word Associations

Article excerpt

Published online: 17 April 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract Words are characterized by a variety of lexical and psychological properties, such as their part of speech, word-frequency, concreteness, or affectivity. In this study, we examine how these properties relate to a word's connectivity in the mental lexicon, the structure containing a person's knowledge of words. In particular, we examine the extent to which these properties display assortative mixing, that is, the extent to which words in the lexicon are more likely to be connected to words that share these properties. We investigated three types of word properties: 1) subjective word covariates: valence, dominance, arousal, and concreteness; 2) lexical information: part of speech; and 3) distributional word properties: age-of-acquisition, word frequency, and contextual diversity. We assessed which of these factors exhibit assortativity using a word association task, where the probability of producing a certain response to a cue is a measure of the associative strength between the cue and response in the mental lexicon. Our results show that the extent to which these aspects exhibit assortativity varies considerably, with a high cue-response correspondence on valence, dominance, arousal, concreteness, and part of speech, indicating that these factors correspond to the words people deem as related. In contrast, we find that cues and responses show only little correspondence on word frequency, contextual diversity, and age-of-acquisition, indicating that, compared to subjective and lexical word covariates, distributional properties exhibit only little assortativity in the mental lexicon. Possible theoretical accounts and implications of these findings are discussed.

Keywords Word meaning . Concepts . Psycholinguistics . Semantics

The mental lexicon, defined by Jackendoff (2002) as the store of words in long-term memory from which the grammar constructs phrases and sentences, contains information such as part of speech (house is a noun), denotation (a dog is an animal), pronunciation (balloon is pronounced b -loon'), affective meaning (cake is something I like), and so forth. When studying aspects of word meaning, the mental lexicon is sometimes portrayed as a semantic network, in which nodes correspond to words and connections indicate a meaningful relation between them (Collins & Loftus, 1975; Collins & Quillian, 1969).

While connections between concepts often reflect semantic relationships (e.g., synonymy, hyponomy, meronomy; Murphy, 2003), research suggests that the properties of a word itself correlate with connectivity as well. In particular, a small corpus of studies indicates that the probability that two words are connected correlates with the presence of similar lexical or psychological properties. In network terms, this tendency for connected nodes to exhibit similar covariates is called assortativity or assortative mixing1 (Newman, 2010; Vitevitch, 2008; Vitevitch, Chan, & Goldstein, 2014).

To study assortative mixing, word association data are often used. In a word association task, the probability of producing a certain response to a cue is a measure of the associative strength between the cue and response in the lexicon (De Deyne, Navarro, & Storms, 2015; Nelson, McEvoy, & Schreiber, 2004). As such, a cue-response correspondence on some factor would be indicative of that factor displaying assortative mixing in the mental lexicon. Using this approach, word association research has identified several factors that exhibit assortativity, that is, several properties that tend to be shared between connected concepts.

First, there is evidence for assortative mixing by syntax: in a word association task, cues tend to elicit responses with the same syntactic properties (Cramer, 1968;Deese,1962, 1966). These results are corroborated by the finding that processing an utterance with a specific syntactic form facilitates processing utterances with a similar syntax (a phenomenon named syntactic priming; Bock, 1986; Pickering & Branigan, 1998, 1999), by the finding that word selection errors frequently preserve part of speech (Hotopf, 1980),andbynoun-or verb-specific deficits in patient studies (Mätzig, Druks, Masterson, & Vigliocco, 2009). …

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