Semantic activation of embedded stems in the presence or absence of a morphological structure


Psychonomic Bulletin and Review


August, 2019


Jana Hasenäcker, Olga Solaja and Davide Crepaldi

In visual word identification, readers automatically access word internal information: they recognize orthographically embedded words (e.g., HAT in THAT) and are sensitive to morphological structure (DEAL–ER, BASKET–BALL). The exact mechanisms that govern these processes, however, are not well established yet—how is this information used? What is the role of affixes in this process? To address these questions, we tested the activation of meaning of embedded word stems in the presence or absence of a morphological structure using a semantic categorization task in Italian. Thirty-two participants made category decisions on words (e.g., is CARROT a type of food?). Some no-answers (is CORNER a type of food?) contained category-congruent embedded word stems (i.e., CORN–). Moreover, the embedded stems could be accompanied by a pseudosuffix (-er in CORNER) or a non-morphological ending (-le in BEETLE)—this allowed to gauge the role of pseudosuffixes in stem activation. The analyses of accuracy and response times revealed that words were harder to reject as members of a category when the embedded word stems were indeed category-congruent. Critically, this was the case regardless of the presence or absence of a pseudosuffix. These findings provide evidence that the lexical identification system activates the meaning of embedded word stems when the task requires semantic information. This study brings together research on orthographic neighbors and morphological processing, yielding results that have important implications for models of visual word processing.

All data, stimuli and analysis code behind this paper are available at A post-print is freely available at, while the journal-edited, published paper is available here