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Cognition. 1991 Mar;38(3):245-94.

The mental representation of lexical form: a phonological approach to the recognition lexicon.

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Max-Planck-Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.


We propose a psycholinguistic model of lexical processing which incorporates both process and representation. The view of lexical access and selection that we advocate claims that these processes are conducted with respect to abstract underspecified phonological representations of lexical form. The abstract form of a given item in the recognition lexicon is an integrated segmental-featural representation, where all predictable and non-distinctive information is withheld. This means that listeners do not have available to them, as they process the speech input, a representation of the surface phonetic realisation of a given word-form. What determines performance is the abstract, underspecified representation with respect to which this surface string is being interpreted. These claims were tested by studying the interpretation of the same phonological feature, vowel nasality, in two languages, English and Bengali. The underlying status of this feature differs in the two languages; nasality is distinctive only in consonants in English, while both vowels and consonants contrast in nasality in Bengali. Both languages have an assimilation process which spreads nasality from a nasal consonant to the preceding vowel. A cross-linguistic gating study was conducted to investigate whether listeners would interpret nasal and oral vowels differently in two languages. The results show that surface phonetic nasality in the vowel in VN sequences is used by English listeners to anticipate the upcoming nasal consonant. In Bengali, however, nasality is initially interpreted as an underlying nasal vowel. Bengali listeners respond to CVN stimuli with words containing a nasal vowel, until they get information about the nasal consonant. In contrast, oral vowels in both languages are unspecified for nasality and are interpreted accordingly. Listeners in both languages respond with CVN words (which have phonetic nasality on the surface) as well as with CVC words while hearing an oral vowel. The results of this cross-linguistic study support, in detail, the hypothesis that the listener's interpretation of the speech input is in terms of an abstract underspecified representation of lexical form.

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