The fruitless effort of growing a fruitless tree: Early morpho-orthographic and morpho-semantic effects in sentence reading


Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, Vol 41(5), 1587-1596


September, 2015


Amenta, S., Marelli, M., and Crepaldi, D.

In this eye-tracking study, we investigated how semantics inform morphological analysis at the early stages of visual word identification in sentence reading. We exploited a feature of several derived Italian words, that is, that they can be read in a “morphologically transparent” way or in a “morphologically opaque” way according to the sentence context to which they belong. This way, each target word was embedded in a sentence eliciting either its transparent or opaque interpretation. We analyzed whether the effect of stem frequency changes according to whether the (very same) word is read as a genuine derivation (transparent context) versus as a pseudoderived word (opaque context). Analysis of the first fixation durations revealed a stem-word frequency effect in both opaque and transparent contexts, thus showing that stems were accessed whether or not they contributed to word meaning, that is, word decomposition is indeed blind to semantics. However, while the stem-word frequency effect was facilitatory in the transparent context, it was inhibitory in the opaque context, thus showing an early involvement of semantic representations. This pattern of data is revealed by words with short suffixes. These results indicate that derived and pseudoderived words are segmented into their constituent morphemes also in natural reading; however, this blind-to-semantics process activates morpheme representations that are semantically connoted.