Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Does the Order of Head Noun and Modifier Explain Response Times in Conceptual Combination?

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Does the Order of Head Noun and Modifier Explain Response Times in Conceptual Combination?

Article excerpt

We describe a speeded sensibility judgment experiment in which noun-noun combinations in the Indonesian language were used that parallels Gagné and Shoben's (1997) study of combinations in the English language. Like English, Indonesian is read from left to right and contains noun-noun combinations that are formed by juxtaposing the nouns. However, unlike in English, the order of the modifier and the head noun is reversed. This difference between English and Indonesian combinations allowed us to assess whether sensibility judgments of combinations are affected primarily by the left-right order of the nouns or by different functional roles of the nouns (i.e., modifier vs. head noun). As in Gagné and Shoben's study, the modifier's relation frequency contributed significantly to predicting sensibility judgment times in a regression analysis, but the head noun's relation frequency did not. We discuss the implications of this finding for models of conceptual combination.

A very important aspect of human cognition is the ability to combine familiar concepts in novel ways to express new concepts and to refer to new situations. The ubiquitous nature of this ability is illustrated by language production. Virtually every sentence produced by a person reflects a novel combination of concepts. In the past 20 years, a large amount of research has focused on one type of conceptual combination-namely, novel nounnoun combinations consisting of a modifier (i.e., the leftmost noun) and a head noun (the rightmost noun; see, e.g., Costello & Keane, 2000; Estes & Glucksberg, 2000; Gagné & Shoben, 1997; Hampton, 1987; Medin & Shoben, 1988; Murphy, 1988; Wisniewski, 1996, 1997; Wisniewski & Middleton, 2002). Examples of novel combinations of familiar concepts that have appeared recently in print include ostrich steak (a steak made out of ostrich meat), bait car (a car that is used to catch car thieves), and bird flu (a type of flu caught by eating chickens). Once initially produced, a novel combination may become familiar to a language community so that it becomes part of that language, as in space shuttle and mad cow disease. In many languages, the creation of such combinations is the primary mechanism that speakers use to expand their language (E. Clark, personal communication, 1995; Downing, 1977).

The present article addresses how people interpret novel combinations. The meanings of most novel combinations involve a relation between the constituents (see Wisniewski, 1997, and Wisniewski& Love, 1998, for evidence). For example, mountain flower could mean a "flower located on a mountain," and chocolate elephant could mean "an elephant made of chocolate." In understanding a novel combination, how do people determine the relation that links its constituents? One possibility is that the discourse context specifies this relation. For example, a story about a candy shop might mention that the shop sold elephants made of chocolate. Later in the story, a person might read that "chocolate elephants are very popular with the kids." To understand chocolate elephants, the reader might recall the relation between elephant and chocolate (i.e., made of) that was presented earlier in the story.

In a number of studies, the role that such contexts play in the understanding of novel combinations has been examined (e.g., Gagné & Spalding, 2004; Gerrig & Bortfeld, 1999; Gerrig & Murphy, 1992; Murphy, 1990). For instance, Gerrig and Bortfeld identified'novel combinations that had highly accessible out-of-discourse-context meanings (e.g., "a smile on a doll" for doll smile) and embedded the combinations in discourse contexts that suggested different, innovative meanings (e.g., "a smile on the face of a child that received a doll as a gift"). They found that highly accessible out-of-discourse meanings did not interfere with the interpretation of these combinations (as compared with combinations without such highly accessible meanings). …

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