The Variation of Tip-of-the-Tongue experiences in different word types

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Abstract

2. Introduction
2.1. Research Question
2.2. Relevance
2.3. Topic of Study
2.4. Hypothesis

3. Previous Research

4. Set-up of the study

5. Results

6. Discussion

7. References

8. Appendix


“What is it called?!” “I know what you mean, it lies at the tip of my tongue…I just cannot think of it!” – Expressions like these are used quite frequently in our everyday lives. These so called Tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) experiences occur throughout all age bands, yet, older adults seem to experience them more often than younger adults do. But they also differ in various types of words: This phenomenon constitutes the basis of this research. Many previous studies investigating this topic focused on proper nouns as a word type, which is why the present study will focus on homonyms and polysemes in order to analyze if older adults perform differently in a picture naming and a question task between those two word types and also compared to younger adults. The anticipated findings are that older adults will have difficulties retrieving one word type compared to the other and also perform worse than the younger adults in both tasks overall. These results will show that word retrieval is therefore influence by the normal aging process.


This section will give a detailed account of the content of this paper, focusing on different aspects especially the research question, the hypothesis, its relevance and all necessary information for the realization of this project.

2.1 Research Question

This study will investigate the following research question: Do tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) experiences vary in different types of words for older adults compared to younger ones?

The word types that are under investigation in this study are homonyms and polysemes. By older adults a group of 10 adults over the age of 50 years with no sign of pathological aging (e.g. dementia or Alzheimer’s disease) and by younger adults a group of 10 adults between 18 and 30 years of age are meant.

2.2 Relevance

Tip-of-the-tongues experiences are a type of word-finding failure to which everyone can relate. They happen in our daily lives and occur in various situations. And there is a difference concerning age. “Older adults report that one of their most annoying cognitive problems is the inability to produce a well-known word” (Burke Shafto, 2004). The root of this cognitive problem is a decline in word retrieval which is age-related. Examining this phenomenon is important in order to find a solution, which can help older adults solving this problem and prevent negative self-appraisal, that can eventually lead to social withdrawal and isolation (Burke Shafto, 2004). Burke and Shafto stated in their research paper on Language and Aging Production that “further research is needed to clarify how age-related increases in TOTs vary for different types of words (Burke Shafto, 2004). Many studies in this area of word-finding failures focus on proper nouns. Therefore, the present study will intensively focus on homonyms and polysemes as no study has been investigating these two word types in this context, yet.

2.3 Topic of Study

The study will investigate TOT experiences using homonyms and polysemes in the experiment. Homonyms refers to words having the identical form, yet unrelated meanings whereas polysemes have a related meaning which can be either literal or metaphorical, even though they differ in their form. Processing the meaning of words with multiple meanings as in polysemes or homonyms is expected to proceed through “activation of multiple representations and subsequent inhibition of irrelevant or contextually inappropriate meanings” (Taler, V., Klepousniotou, E. Phillips, N., 2009). As current models of language production assume, „verbal information is stored in a vast network of interconnected nodes organized into a semantic system representing word meanings and a phonological and orthographic system representing word sounds and spellings” (Burke Shafto, 2004; Dell, G. S., 1986). A TOT experience takes place when the semantic and lexical representation of a word is activated, yet the activation of the phonological information of a word is incomplete. This phenomenon, explained in the transmission-deficit-model, occurs because the interconnected nodes transmitting the phonological representation of a word have become weak, due to aging, resulting in a reduced transmission of excitation (Burke, MacKay, Worthley, Wade, 1991). Also, the phonological representation is more vulnerable compared to the semantic representation because “the representation of meaning is characterized by greater redundancy than the representation of sound” (Burke MacKay, 1997).

The processing of words with multiple meanings in face of the model of language production and the transmission-deficit-model make homonyms and polysemes suitable for testing TOTs between older and younger adults to find out if these word types produce a significant result.

2.4 Hypothesis

On the basis of previous research, the following hypotheses can be derived from the research question and will be tested:

H1: Older adults have more difficulties retrieving homonyms than polysemes

H01: Older adults can equally retrieve homonyms and polysemes.

H2: Older adults have more difficulties retrieving polysemes than homonyms.

H02: Older adults can equally retrieve homonyms and polysemes.

H3: Older adults have more difficulties in retrieving either homonyms or polysemes than younger adults resulting in more TOT experiences.

H03: There is no significant difference in the retrieval of either homonyms or polysemes between young and older adults.

3.Previous Research

I will focus here on two studies having previously investigated TOTs occurring naturally, which showed that older adults experience these more often than younger adults do (Burke et al., 1991; Heine, Ober, Shenaut, 1999). In their study on phonological priming effects on word retrieval and tip-of-the-tongue experiences in young and older adults, James Burke (2000) found out, that producing words prior to a target word, which share the sounds of the target, will reduce the potential of TOT experiences for the target word, since “the production of the phonologically related words strengthens weak phonological connections that cause TOTs” (James Burke, 2000). Also, there is a difference for low- and high-frequency words and the production of homophones of the target prior to the production of a target word can also help to decrease the overall amount of TOTs (Burke, Locantore, Austin Chae, 2004). As Alan S. Brown states in his research, subjects who experience TOTs usually generate related words to the actual target word, which are either similar in sound or similar in meaning (Brown, 1991). These results of previous research make it so interesting to focus especially on homonyms and polysemes to find out how these word types influence TOT experiences.

4.Set-up of the study

Participants: This study included 20 participants of which 10 were over the age of 50 years and the other 10 were young adults between 18 and 30 years of age. All of the subjects mentioned above were healthy and showed no signs of pathological aging like any form of dementia. They were German native speakers and currently live in Mannheim, Germany.

Materials: The experimental items are two self-designed tests which were conducted in one session: A picture naming task and a question task. Each session consisted of 24 target words. 12 target words were homonyms and the other 12 were polysemes. 12 words in the two categories were part of a picture naming test and the other 12 were presented as a question task. The questions of the question task were posed in the German language, since all participants were German native speakers. All words varied in their frequency and difficulty.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Design of study: The experiment was conducted individually with each of the participants. The analysis will be based on testing the hypotheses stated above. The independent variables of the study are the target words, which are either part of the picture naming task or the answers to the question task and consist of homonyms and polysemes, the age of the participants and the frequency of each word. The dependent variables are the factual results of the participants: the correct / incorrect answers and the response time from presenting the picture or question to the actual one-word answer.

Method: The methods being used in this study are a picture naming task and a question task. Previous laboratory studies have used these methods to induce TOT experiences, which is why these two methods were also used in the present study. They both allow analysis of the two groups of participants individually and their performance for the two word categories (homonyms and polysemes) but also between the younger and older adults to analyze their performance and how it might be influenced by age.

Procedure: Firstly, each individual participant was instructed with the procedure of the study. After the instruction, the subject was shown a total of 12 pictures on a laptop screen as the first part of the session – one at a time. The experimenter asked the subject to give a one-word answer to describe, what the image shows. The time between the appearance of the picture and the answer of the participant was recorded by the experimenter as well as all the answers given by the subject. If the answer was incorrect, the test still continued. In the second part of the session, 12 questions appeared on the screen – one at a time – which were read by the subject. Once again, the experimenter asked the subject to give a one-word answer to the question presented and recorded the answer of the participant as well as the time the subject needed to answer. If the answer was incorrect, the test still continued. At the end of the test potential questions of the participant regarding the study were answered and each participant received a little thank-you gift for supporting the study.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


The Variation of Tip-of-the-Tongue experiences in different word types
University of Mannheim  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Language and Aging
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Tip of the tongue experiences, TOTs, phonemes, morphemes, research
Quote paper
Melanie Pongratz (Author), 2016, The Variation of Tip-of-the-Tongue experiences in different word types, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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