The Influence of the Phonological Characteristics of a Language on the Functional Units of Reading: A Study in French

Article excerpt

The influence of the phonological characteristics of a language on the funcional units of reading: a study in French

Abstract Taft (1992) reported results supporting the idea that the "Body of the BOSS" (BOB) is an important unit in the visual recognition of English polysyllab ic words. "BOSS" refers to the orthographically-defined first syllable of a word (e.g., the lam of lament); "Body" refers to the part of that syllable which fol lows the initial consonant(s) (e.g., the am of lam). The primary evidence suppor ting this notion was that the pronunciation of an ambiguously pronounceable nonw ord could be biased by the pronunciation of a preceding word when they shared th eir BOB, but not when they shared their phonologically-defined first syllable. T hree experiments were conducted in French, to examine whether the syllable domin ates as a unit of orthographic representation when the language has a clear phon ological syllable structure. To construct ambiguously pronounceable nonwords, up per case letters were used and the first syllable always contained an E, which c ould be pronounced either as e or e. Nonwords (e.g., MERANE) were preceded by an upper case version of a word sharing a BOB (e.g., feroce) or a first syllable ( e.g., meduse). The pronunciation of the nonword's E was biased by the syllable a nd not by the BOB, implying that the syllable, but not the BOB, is a relevant st ructure in the processing of visually presented French words.

What are the functional units of reading an alphabetically written word? Is the letter-string recognized purely on the basis of recognition of the individual le tters, or are the letters organized into larger processing units that are nevert heless smaller than the whole-word? A morpheme is one such possible unit (e.g., Taft, 1994), but so are other units below the morpheme level. For example, the l etter-string picnicking can be processed as the morpheme units picnic and ing; b ut picnic can be analysed further into the syllabic units pic and nic and these syllables could be analysed further still into subsyllabic units (e.g., in proce ssing the ic of both pic and nic).

There has been considerable interest in recent years in the involvement of subsy llabic units in reading. Most of the research has examined English monosyllabic (monomorphemic) words, and comes to the conclusion that such words are mentally structured in termsof their onset and body during lexical processing (e.g., Bow ey, 1990; Kay & Bishop, 1987; Taraban & McClelland, 1987; Treiman & Chafetz, 198 7; Treiman, Goswami, & Bruck, 1990; Treiman & Zukowski, 1988). The onset/body st ructure divides the orthographic representation of a monosyllable between its in itial consonant or consonant cluster and its vowel. For example, red has an onse t r and a body ed, stripe has an onset str and a body ipe, and priest has an ons et pr and a body iest. Thus, "body" refers to the orthographic equivalent of the phonological "rhyme" (or "rime") of the word (e.g., Fudge, 1987). In this way, priest and least have different bodies (i.e., iest and east respectively), but t he same rhyme (i.e., /i:st/). The body is itself composed of a vowel (e.g., the ie of priest) plus the final consonants, or "coda" (e.g., the st of priest).

Taft (1992) has extended the notion of onset/body structure to bisyllabic words. What he proposes is that each syllable of the orthographic representation of a word has its own onset/body structure and that it is the combined activation of lexical units representing these onsets and bodies that allows the word to be re cognized. For example, the word kidney has two syllables, kid and ney made up of k plus id and n plus ey respectively. Taft therefore proposes that the word kid ney would be activated in the lexical processing system via a representation of the units k, id, n, and ey. If this is the appropriate way to extend the notion of onset/body structure from monosyllabic words to bisyllabic words, the major i ssue then becomes where the syllable boundary falls. …