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J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2013 Aug;39(4):1143-52. doi: 10.1037/a0031075. Epub 2013 Feb 11.

The flexibility of letter-position flexibility: evidence from eye movements in reading Hebrew.

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Department of Psychology, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel.


Hebrew provides an intriguing contrast to European languages. On the one hand, like any European language, it has an alphabetic script. On the other hand, being a Semitic language, it differs in the structure of base words. By monitoring eye movements, we examined the time-course of processing letter transpositions in Hebrew and assessed their impact on reading different types of Hebrew words that differ in their internal structure. We found that letter transposition resulted in dramatic reading costs for words with Semitic word structure, and much smaller costs for non-Semitic words. Moreover, the strongest impact of transposition occurred where root-letter transposition resulted in a pseudo-root, where significant interference emerged already in first fixation duration. Our findings thus suggest that Hebrew readers differentiate between Semitic and non-Semitic forms already at first fixation, at the early phase of word recognition. Moreover, letters are differentially processed across the visual array, given their morphological structure and their contribution to recovering semantic meaning. We conclude that flexibility or rigidity in encoding letter position is determined by cues regarding the internal structure of printed words.

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