Lexical Decisions During the Reading of Sentences Containing Polysemous Words
Joël Pynte, Philippe Dô Paolo Scampa Laboratoire de Psychologie (associé au C.N.R.S.) Universite De Provence
Sentences of the type "il cire/le dossier/du fauteuil" were presented on a video screen, in segmented form (three segments separated by slashes in the above example). The lexical word in the second segment (dossier) was either polysemous (and frequent) or nonpolysemous (and rare). The subject was to make a lexical decision concerning the lexical word in each segment (cire, dossier, fauteuil). His response caused the current segment to disappear and the following one to appear. During a different phase of the experiment, the lexical decision was replaced by a semantic congruency decision. The subject finally carried out a lexical decision task on isolated words. The classical effect of word frequency is clearly manifested on isolated words as well as in context (lexical decision on the word itself). The effect is the opposite when considering the following word (segment). This result suggests two successive stages in processing words in sentences: first lexical access, second, elaboration of a precise meaning. In the semantic congruency task, the meaning had to be processed on the word itself. Longer response times, due to polysemy, are then observed for the word itself as well as for the following word.
Recent publications have brought up the idea that certain effects classically attributed to the frequency of word usage may actually be due to their polysemy. Thorndike ( 1948) and Zipf ( 1949) had already attracted attention to the fact that there exists a correlation between how often a word is used and the number of synonyms it possesses. This latter factor is evidently linked to polysemy: the more polysemous a word, the more (different) synonyms it has.
Noble ( 1952, 1953) attempted to determine the nature of this relationship. In order to make the notion of meaning "operational," he first proposed a verbal association task to his subjects (the "degree of meaning" of a word being