Friday, September 13, 2013

Klepousniotou: "The Processing of Lexical Ambiguity" (2001)

Following up on a related experiment by Lyn Frazier and Keith Rayner, this paper by Ekaterini Klepousniotou presents some evidence that not all types of ambiguity are equally hard to process.

Specifically, she reports a significant difference between, on one hand, the mass/count ambiguity of foodstuff words like potato, and, on the other hand, "deeper" ambiguities like that of fan ("enthusiast" vs. "air-blower").

Filed Down

These differences are found using a priming paradigm in which the subject must make a decision as to whether a string (e.g., prock) is a real English word or not. This task is posed immediately after the subject has read a sentence which primes one specific meaning of the term.

For instance, in the section of the experiment concerned with homonyms, you might for instance get one of the following prime–target pairs:
  • The carpenter smoothed the wood. — file
  • I have the papers in my office. — file
These two sentences differ as to whether they prime the less frequent or the more frequent meaning of the word file (i.e., "hand tool" or "dossier").

I am afraid Klepsousniotou's frequency calibration of the experiment was done on the basis of data from 1967. This may have had a quite important effect on the outcome of the experiment.

Somewhat surprisingly, Klepsousniotou reports that there was no significant difference between the priming of more frequent meanings and less frequent meanings (p. 213). This contradicts data from other experiments which were specifically designed to show that subordinate meanings are more difficult to access.

A Typology of Lemons

She does, however, find an on-average difference between ambiguities of the type above and ambiguities based around foodstuff metonymies (the result of what Langacker calls "grinding").

The following pair of prime–target pairs would thus both be quicker to process than the file examples above:
  • I baked one for lunch. — potato
  • I ate some mashed with gravy. — potato
And sure enough, the phrases a potato and some potato hardly seem to invoke different senses of the word potato. It would seem a bit weird to insist that the bare word, in the absence of any article, necessarily would have to be forced into the mold of a "mass noun" or a "count noun."

Mean reaction times for two ambiguity types and two target frequencies (cf. p. 213).

But anyway, now we have some empirical evidence that confirms this hypothesis: Subordinate meanings of strongly ambiguous words (e.g., spring = "source," punch = "drink," racket = "noise," etc.) are more difficult to settle on than mass readings of food words (e.g., some olive, some lemon, some rabbit, some cabbage, some apple, etc.).

No comments :

Post a Comment