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J Exp Psychol Gen. 1986 Sep;115(3):281-94.

Pictures in sentences: understanding without words.


To understand a sentence, the meanings of the words in the sentence must be retrieved and combined. Are these meanings represented within the language system (the lexical hypothesis) or are they represented in a general conceptual system that is not restricted to language (the conceptual hypothesis)? To evaluate these hypotheses, sentences were presented in which a pictured object replaced a word (rebus sentences). Previous research has shown that isolated pictures and words are processed equally rapidly in conceptual tasks, but that pictures are markedly slower than words in tasks requiring lexical access. The lexical hypothesis would therefore lead one to expect that rebus sentences will be relatively difficult, whereas the conceptual hypothesis would predict that rebus sentences would be rather easy. Sentences were shown using rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) at a rate of 10 or 12 words per second. With one set of materials (Experiments 1 and 2), readers took longer to judge the plausibility of rebus sentences than all-word sentences, although the accuracy of judgment and of recall were similar for the two formats. With two new sets of materials (Experiments 3 and 5), rebus and all-word sentences were virtually equivalent except in one circumstance: when a picture replaced the noun in a familiar phrase such as seedless grapes. In contrast, when the task required overt naming of the rebus picture in a sentence context, latency to name the picture was markedly longer than to name the corresponding word, and the appropriateness of the sentence context affected picture naming but not word naming (Experiment 4). The results fail to support theories that place word meanings in a specialized lexical entry. Instead, the results suggest that the lexical representation of a noun or familiar noun phrase provides a pointer to a nonlinguistic conceptual system, and it is in that system that the meaning of a sentence is constructed.

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