Derivation and the Mental Lexicon. How are Prefixed Complex Words Stored and Retrieved?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2021

13 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background

3. Previous Research

4. Research Question and Hypothesis

5. Study

6. Results

7. Discussion

8. References


In the following paper, I will examine the field of the word-forming process derivation and in that regard, I want to focus on prefixed words and their representation in the mental lexicon. Specifying that within my paper I will scrutinise the question “Derivation and The Mental Lexicon ­– How are Prefixed Words Stored and Retrieved?”.

The researched topic is relevant for the field of linguistics because it is not yet clarified how exactly words are stored and retrieved in the brain.

To get a closer insight on the topic of derivation and particularly the process of affixation and its connection to the mental lexicon I will conduct the help of several textbooks to give an overview of the process itself and the mental lexicon. Apart from that, I am going to use selected literature to zoom in on the specific field of word storage and for that examine a study that is concerned with this.

Since the study is based on lexical decision tasks, I am going to analyse the implemented experiments and interpret how prefixed words are stored, namely via morphological decomposition. Further, I will state why and how the experiments suggest that kind processing and briefly examine other possible theories of word storage of prefixed words.

1. Introduction

The following paper in linguistics will focus on the morphological area of word storage and its representation in a certain part of the brain, namely the mental lexicon.

It will investigate an intersection between derivation and psycholinguistic approaches and combine theories and operation from both fields to examine the question of how prefixed words are stored and retrieved.

This paper consists of seven thematic sections and will start off with an explanation of key terms and important theories from the fields of morphology and psycholinguistics.

After that, a summary of important previous research regarding the mental lexicon and word-storage will follow, before I state the research question of that paper and also hypothesise about the outcome of the study, as well as the answer to my research question.

The fifth section will then examine a study which deals with the topic of word-storage of prefixed words and explain the procedure of the conducted experiments in further detail.

Later, I will summarise the results and afterwards interpret and discuss the outcome of the study and what is important for answering the research question. I will then conclude my work by giving a suggestion on how prefixed words are stored and retrieved that emerges from the paper. In the end I will propose further possible research that would be important in the field of word-storage.

2. Theoretical Background

First, one might have the question on what the mental lexicon is. That question is not as easy to answer, since finding a brief and straight-forward definition for what the mental lexicon is can be challenging. It is not possible to physically examine the brain and find the mental lexicon as a part of it, rather one could describe the mental lexicon as an abstract theory to understand the way in that words are stored and later retrieved to form sentences. Following that, Lieber (2016, 15) suggests that the mental lexicon is “[…] the sum total of everything an individual speaker knows about the words of her language.” (Lieber 2016, 15), that includes knowledge about pronunciation, category, meaning, and syntactic properties.

When we now take a closer look on what is stored in the mental lexicon, the answer seems to be easier, in that we could just say words are stored in it. But from that arises the question “What exactly are words?”.

O’Grady et al. define words as “the smallest free form found in language” (O`Grady et al. 2011, 117), where a free form simply refers to the characteristic of free occurrence of the word. If we consider the following example from O’Grady et al. it becomes clearer:

(1) Dinosaurs are extinct.

Looking at it from a linguistic point of view, we can agree that dinosaurs is a word, but the plural marker -s is not, because as defined above, it is not a free form, i.e., does not appear without a reference word (O’Grady et al. 2011, 117). The plural marker cannot occur without the noun here, but in contrast the word dinosaur(s) can occur on its own and in different positions within the sentence and therefore is a word.

Going further, words can also be divided in smaller units, the so-called morphemes. A morpheme is “the smallest unit of language that carries information about meaning or function” (O’Grady et al., 117). As in the previous example for the definition of words we will have a look at an example to clarify what morphemes are. Consider the word prewash. This word is composed of the prefix pre- and the root wash, which are both distinct morphemes and therefore carry an independent meaning or function (O’Grady et al., 117). Prefixes belong to the category of affixes, which are always bound and do not belong to a lexical category. They can combine, for example, with a verb to give a new meaning or word category (O’Grady et al. 2001, 119). A root on the other hand is “the core of the word and carries the major component of its meaning” (O’Grady et al. 2011, 119).

The prefix pre- carries the meaning of ‘before’ (OED 2000, R71) and the verb wash means ‘to make something/somebody clean by using water and usually soap’ (OED 2000, 1719), when we combine these two distinct morphemes, we get the meaning ‘to wash cloth before it is used, or clothing before it is sold’ (OED 2000, 1194).

Further, we can define prefixes such as pre-, un-, in- etc. as bound morphemes, since they must be attached to another element and are positioned in front of the root (O’Grady et al. 2011, 118) and simple words like wash as free morphemes, because they can stand alone as words (Lieber 2016, 36).

Therefore, we can add to our previous definition of words, that “words are one or more morphemes that can stand alone in a language” (Lieber 2016, 3).

Earlier, we encountered the term ‘simple words’, which are words, that consist of only one morpheme, as seen in the word giraffe (Lieber 2016, 3). On the contrary, words that are composed of more than one morpheme are called ‘complex words’, as seen in the word prewash. These complex words can be formed by several word-formation processes, one of which we will look at more closely in this paper.

Now that we have clarified what morphemes are, we can proceed by looking closer at the process of affixation, particularly prefixation, as a kind of derivation that we have already touched on while describing morphemes. First, we must define the generic term of derivation. According to O’Grady, derivation is “an affixational [word-formation] process that forms a word with a meaning and/or category distinct from that of its base” (O’Grady 2011, 122). To be more precise, it is a word-formation process whereby a bound morpheme, an affix, is attached to a morphological base, a free morpheme. It is a rule-governed process, where prefixes, and other affixes, that I will disregard in the further development of this paper, must meet certain syntactic requirements to attach to a root (Lieber, 2016, 39). The prefix un- for example is appended to adjectives, where it carries the meaning ‘not’ and to verbs, where it means ‘reverse action’. Both examples given of affixational processes here do not change the word category of the base word, but its meaning (Lieber 2016, 39). There are further restrictions to what words prefixes can attach but to examine this would go beyond the scope of this work.

Now that we defined what words are, what they are made of and how they are composed, we can take a closer look on how they are stored in the mental lexicon that I introduced earlier. In linguistics there is still no agreement on how complex words are stored, but there are two major theories that I will introduce in the next chapter.

How do researchers figure out how we retrieve and access words from our brain? There are many experiments that researchers use, one of which is most important for this paper is the lexical decision task. For that, participants see a word onscreen and must decide as quickly as possible if it is a real word or not (O’Grady 2011, 431). The time they take to answer, as well as whether the answer is correct or not is measured. Longer reaction times reflect morphological processing that is more complex and therefore suggest the processed word processed needs further analysation (O’Grady 432).

3. Previous Research

One of the first assumptions on how words are stored in the mental lexicon was, that only words that cannot be composed by rules are stored in the mental lexicon and therefore “only simplex words, roots, and affixes would have place, but no complex words.” (Plag 2018, 47). De Vaan et al. (2011), in contrast, found out, that even newly made-up complex words, that we have only come across once, are still somehow represented in the mental lexicon and accordingly contradicted the first assumption stated above (Plag 2018, 47).

As I have already mentioned in the preceded chapter, there are two major theories on how complex words could be stored in the mental lexicon suggested by Plag.

One of which would be the decomposition route. A complex prefixed word like insane would be decomposed into its two morphemes in- and sane and therefore the whole word insane would not be directly represented in the mental lexicon (Plag 2018, 48). This route is thought to be more economical in terms of storage, because the two morphemes are stored anyway, and the attributes of the derived word are completely predictable from its morphemes (Plag 2018, 48). But still, when we consider how fast a person must process words to have a conversation, it may be unlikely that we check every morpheme in the mental lexicon to see how we can put them together acceptably and what their combination may mean (Plag 2018, 48).

The second suggested theory by Plag is the whole-word route. In this theory, the word insane would be stored as a whole and not be decomposed. This would take up more storage, but at the same time be more efficient timewise, since we would have to retrieve only one item when we need the word insane (Plag 2018, 49) . Regarding both theories and their pros and cons, one can see, that economy of storage and economy of processing are interrelated, and, in the end, maximum functionality must be achieved by balancing these two features (Plag 2018, 49).

Plag proposes, that incoming words are synchronously processed in both routes and the “[…] faster route wins the race and the item is retrieved in that way.” (Plag 2018, 49).

Another decisive role in the processing of words is played by frequency of occurrence. That means, that the more often a word occurs, the easier it is to store and access it (Plag 2018, 49). Psycholinguistic research found out; the so-called resting activation is responsible for how fast a word can be retrieved. They assume words to ‘wait’ for their retrieval and when they are activated multiple times in a relatively short amount of time, its resting activation is very high, and it is therefore easier to retrieve (Plag 2018, 49).

Coming back to complex words, if we consider a low-frequency complex word with a therefore low resting activity, we can assume that the whole-word route will be very slow and accordingly, the decomposition route would win. (Plag 2018, 50). Sometimes, it is also possible, that there is no entry for the whole-word route for newly coined complex words hence only the decomposition route would be possible. (Plag 2018, 50). In contrast, if we consider a complex word with a high frequency, that is retrieved more often, it will also have a high resting activity and thus be more likely to be retrieved with the whole-word route. Even though the decomposition route is still possible. (Plag 2018, 50).

Murrell & Morton (1974) also found out, that the process of recognizing a word involves assigning it to a linguistic unit, namely morphemes. After analysing the rate of errors, Murrell & Morton assumed, that roots and affixes are perceived independently, and frequency of occurrence also plays a major part in word recognition. Accordingly, these researchers argue, that the morphological decomposition may be more probable (Murrell & Morton 1974).

Taft & Forster (1975) also suggest that it may be possible, “that the whole-word route is carried out to begin with” (Taft & Forster 1975, 644), but if there is no entry to be found, the next step would be the morphological decomposition route (Taft & Forster 1975, 644).

As seen in this chapter, there are multiple theories on how words are retrieved and what constituents play a role in processing. It is not possible to find a thorough solution on which way words are processed, but rather, there are different possibilities for all kinds of different variants of words. Frequent simplex words will for example be retrieved faster and differently than infrequent complex words.

For that reason, I am going to take a closer look on one distinct case of storage and retrieval of words.

4. Research Question and Hypothesis

How are Prefixed Words Stored in the Mental Lexicon? That question I am going to examine further with the study following in the next chapters by Taft and Forster.

Prefixed complex words are most probably stored via the morphological decomposition route and require analysis before being retrieved.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Derivation and the Mental Lexicon. How are Prefixed Complex Words Stored and Retrieved?
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
derivation, mental, lexicon, prefixed, complex, words, stored, retrieved
Quote paper
Noel Koch (Author), 2021, Derivation and the Mental Lexicon. How are Prefixed Complex Words Stored and Retrieved?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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