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Cognition. 1997 Jul;64(1):39-72.

The representation of Hebrew words: evidence from the obligatory contour principle.

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Department of Psychology, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton 33431-0991, USA.


The Hebrew root morpheme typically consists of three consonants. Hebrew allows a gemination of a root consonant, but constrains its location [McCarthy, J. (1979). Formal problems in semitic phonology and morphology. Cambridge, MA; MIT Ph.D. dissertation. Distributed by Indiana University Linguistics Club. Garland Press, New York, 1985]. A gemination of a root-consonant is permitted at the end of the root (e.g., [mss]), but not at its beginning (e.g., [ssm]). Two experiments examined readers' sensitivity to the structure of the root morpheme by obtaining ratings for nonwords derived from nonroots. Root-initial gemination (e.g., [ssm]) was judged unacceptable compared to root-final gemination (e.g., [mss]) or no gemination controls (e.g., [psm]). The sensitivity to root structure emerged regardless of the position of the root in the word. These results have several implications. (1) Our findings demonstrate morphological decomposition. Hebrew speakers' ratings reflect a phonological constraint on the location of geminates. Being the domain of this constraint, the root morpheme must form a separate constituent in the representation of Hebrew words. (2) The rejection of root-initial gemination supports the psychological reality of the Obligatory Contour Principle, a pivotal constraint in autosegmental phonology. (3) A sensitivity to the location of geminates presupposes a distinction between the representation of geminate and nongeminate bigrams. Such a distinction, however, requires the implementation of a symbol. Our findings converge with numerous linguistic evidence in suggesting that the representation of constituency structure is necessary to account for linguistic generalizations.

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