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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006 Aug 8;103(32):12203-8. Epub 2006 Aug 1.

Phonological typicality influences on-line sentence comprehension.

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Department of Psychology, Cornell University, Uris Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


Since Saussure, the relationship between the sound and the meaning of words has been regarded as largely arbitrary. Here, however, we show that a probabilistic relationship exists between the sound of a word and its lexical category. Corpus analyses of nouns and verbs indicate that the phonological properties of the individual words in these two lexical categories form relatively separate and coherent clusters, with some nouns sounding more typical of the noun category than others and likewise for verbs. Additional analyses reveal that the phonological properties of nouns and verbs affect lexical access, and we also demonstrate the influence of such properties during the on-line processing of both simple unambiguous and syntactically ambiguous sentences. Thus, although the sound of a word may not provide cues to its specific meaning, phonological typicality, the degree to which the sound properties of an individual word are typical of other words in its lexical category, affects both word- and sentence-level language processing. The findings are consistent with a perspective on language comprehension in which sensitivity to multiple syntactic constraints in adulthood emerges as a product of language-development processes that are driven by the integration of multiple cues to linguistic structure, including phonological typicality.

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