Lexical Structure and the Nature of Linguistic Representations

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This dissertation addresses a foundational debate regarding the role of structure and abstraction in linguistic representation, focusing on representations at the lexical level. Under one set of views, positing abstract morphologically-structured representations, words are decomposable into morpheme-level basic units; however, alternative views now challenge the need for abstract structured representation in lexical representation, claiming non-morphological whole-word storage and processing either across-the-board or depending on factors like transparency/productivity/surface form. Our cross-method/cross-linguistic results regarding morphological-level decomposition argue for initial, automatic decomposition, regardless of factors like semantic transparency, surface formal overlap, word frequency, and productivity, contrary to alternative views of the lexicon positing non-decomposition for some or all complex words.

Using simultaneous lexical decision and time-sensitive brain activity measurements from magnetoencephalography (MEG), we demonstrate effects of initial, automatic access to morphemic constituents of compounds, regardless of whole-word frequency, lexicalization and length, both in the psychophysical measure (response time) and in the MEG component indexing initial lexical activation (M350), which we also utilize to test distinctions in lexical representation among ambiguous words in a further experiment. Two masked priming studies further demonstrate automatic decomposition of compounds into morphemic constituents, showing equivalent facilitation regardless of semantic transparency. A fragment-priming study with spoken Japanese compounds argues that compounds indeed activate morphemic candidates, even when the surface form of a spoken compound fragment segmentally-mismatches its potential underlying morpheme completion due to a morpho-phonological alternation (rendaku), whereas simplex words do not facilitate segment-mismatching continuations, supporting morphological structure-based prediction regardless of surface-form overlap. A masked priming study on productive and non-productive Japanese de-adjectival nominal derivations shows priming of constituents regardless of productivity, and provides evidence that affixes have independent morphological-level representations.

The results together argue that the morpheme, not the word, is the basic unit of lexical processing, supporting a view of lexical representations in which there are abstract morphemes, and revealing immediate, automatic decomposition regardless of semantic transparency, morphological productivity, and surface formal overlap, counter to views in which some/all complex words are treated as unanalyzed wholes. Instead, we conclude that morphologically-complex words are decomposed into abstract morphemic units immediately and automatically by rule, not by exception.