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Concept: Lexicon


Recent research reported the surprising finding that even 6-mo-olds understand common nouns [Bergelson E, Swingley D (2012) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:3253-3258]. However, is their early lexicon structured and acquired like older learners? We test 6-mo-olds for a hallmark of the mature lexicon: cross-word relations. We also examine whether properties of the home environment that have been linked with lexical knowledge in older children are detectable in the initial stage of comprehension. We use a new dataset, which includes in-lab comprehension and home measures from the same infants. We find evidence for cross-word structure: On seeing two images of common nouns, infants looked significantly more at named target images when the competitor images were semantically unrelated (e.g., milk and foot) than when they were related (e.g., milk and juice), just as older learners do. We further find initial evidence for home-lab links: common noun “copresence” (i.e., whether words' referents were present and attended to in home recordings) correlated with in-lab comprehension. These findings suggest that, even in neophyte word learners, cross-word relations are formed early and the home learning environment measurably helps shape the lexicon from the outset.

Concepts: Understanding, Structure, Noun, Lexeme, Reference, Name, Nomenclature, Lexicon


Words are characterized by a variety of lexical and psychological properties, such as their part of speech, word-frequency, concreteness, or affectivity. In this study, we examine how these properties relate to a word’s connectivity in the mental lexicon, the structure containing a person’s knowledge of words. In particular, we examine the extent to which these properties display assortative mixing, that is, the extent to which words in the lexicon are more likely to be connected to words that share these properties. We investigated three types of word properties: 1) subjective word covariates: valence, dominance, arousal, and concreteness; 2) lexical information: part of speech; and 3) distributional word properties: age-of-acquisition, word frequency, and contextual diversity. We assessed which of these factors exhibit assortativity using a word association task, where the probability of producing a certain response to a cue is a measure of the associative strength between the cue and response in the mental lexicon. Our results show that the extent to which these aspects exhibit assortativity varies considerably, with a high cue-response correspondence on valence, dominance, arousal, concreteness, and part of speech, indicating that these factors correspond to the words people deem as related. In contrast, we find that cues and responses show only little correspondence on word frequency, contextual diversity, and age-of-acquisition, indicating that, compared to subjective and lexical word covariates, distributional properties exhibit only little assortativity in the mental lexicon. Possible theoretical accounts and implications of these findings are discussed.

Concepts: Language, Word, Lexeme, Lexicon, Vocabulary, Lexical item, Lexical units


Nissim, a 64 years old Hebrew-speaking man who sustained an ischemic infarct in the left occipital lobe, exhibited an intriguing pattern. He could hold a deep and fluent conversation about abstract and complex issues, such as the social risks in unemployment, but failed to retrieve imageable words such as ball, spoon, carrot, or giraffe. A detailed study of the words he could and could not retrieve, in tasks of picture naming, tactile naming, and naming to definition, indicated that whereas he was able to retrieve abstract words, he had severe difficulties when trying to retrieve imageable words. The same dissociation also applied for proper names-he could retrieve names of people who have no visual image attached to their representation (such as the son of the biblical Abraham), but could not name people who had a visual image (such as his own son, or Barack Obama). When he tried to produce imageable words, he mainly produced perseverations and empty speech, and some semantic paraphasias. He did not produce perseverations when he tried to retrieve abstract words. This suggests that perseverations may occur when the phonological production system produces a word without proper activation in the semantic lexicon. Nissim evinced a similar dissociation in comprehension-he could understand abstract words and sentences but failed to understand sentences with imageable words, and to match spoken imageable words to pictures or to semantically related imageable words. He was able to understand proverbs with imageable literal meaning but abstract figurative meaning. His comprehension was impaired also in tasks of semantic associations of pictures, pointing to a conceptual, rather than lexical source of the deficit. His visual perception as well as his phonological input and output lexicons and buffers (assessed by auditory lexical decision, word and sentence repetition, and writing to dictation) were intact, supporting a selective conceptual system impairment. He was able to retrieve gestures for objects and pictures he saw, indicating that his access to concepts often sufficed for the activation of the motoric information but did not suffice for access to the entry in the semantic lexicon. These results show that imageable concepts can be selectively impaired, and shed light on the organization of conceptual-semantic system.

Concepts: Perception, Linguistics, Semantics, Object, Occipital lobe, Barack Obama, Concepts, Lexicon


Most people name the myriad colors in the environment using between two and about a dozen color terms [1], with great variation within and between languages [2]. Investigators generally agree that color lexicons evolve from fewer terms to more terms, as technology advances and color communication becomes increasingly important [3]. However, little is understood about the color naming systems at the least technologically advanced end of the continuum. The Hadza people of Tanzania are nomadic hunter-gatherers who live a subsistence lifestyle that was common before the advent of agriculture (see Supplemental Experimental Procedures, section I; [4]), suggesting that the Hadzane language should be at an early stage of color lexicon evolution. When Hadza, Somali, and US informants named 23 color samples, Hadza informants named only the black, white, and red samples with perfect consensus. Otherwise, they used low-consensus terms or responded “don’t know.” However, even low-consensus color terms grouped test colors into lexical categories that aligned with those found in other world languages [5]. Furthermore, information-theoretic analysis showed that color communication efficiency within the Hadza, Somali, and US language communities falls on the same continuum as other world languages. Thus, the structure of color categories is in place in Hadzane, even though words for many of the categories are not in general use. These results suggest that even very simple color lexicons include precursors of many color categories but that these categories are initially represented in a diverse and distributed fashion.

Concepts: Color, Linguistics, Language, Tanzania, Lexicon, Hunter-gatherers, Names, Hadza language


Cognates share their form and meaning across languages: “winter” in English means the same as “winter” in Dutch. Research has shown that bilinguals process cognates more quickly than words that exist in one language only (e.g. “ant” in English). This finding is taken as strong evidence for the claim that bilinguals have one integrated lexicon and that lexical access is language non-selective. Two English lexical decision experiments with Dutch-English bilinguals investigated whether the cognate facilitation effect is influenced by stimulus list composition. In Experiment 1, the ‘standard’ version, which included only cognates, English control words and regular non-words, showed significant cognate facilitation (31ms). In contrast, the ‘mixed’ version, which also included interlingual homographs, pseudohomophones (instead of regular non-words) and Dutch-only words, showed a significantly different profile: a non-significant disadvantage for the cognates (8ms). Experiment 2 examined the specific impact of these three additional stimuli types and found that only the inclusion of Dutch words significantly reduced the cognate facilitation effect. Additional exploratory analyses revealed that, when the preceding trial was a Dutch word, cognates were recognised up to 50ms more slowly than English controls. We suggest that when participants must respond ‘no’ to non-target language words, competition arises between the ‘yes’- and ‘no’-responses associated with the two interpretations of a cognate, which (partially) cancels out the facilitation that is a result of the cognate’s shared form and meaning. We conclude that the cognate facilitation effect is a real effect that originates in the lexicon, but that cognates can be subject to competition effects outside the lexicon.

Concepts: Linguistics, German language, Lexeme, Dutch language, Morphology, Lexicography, Lexicon, Etymology


Word similarities affect language acquisition and use in a multi-relational way barely accounted for in the literature. We propose a multiplex network representation of this mental lexicon of word similarities as a natural framework for investigating large-scale cognitive patterns. Our representation accounts for semantic, taxonomic, and phonological interactions and it identifies a cluster of words which are used with greater frequency, are identified, memorised, and learned more easily, and have more meanings than expected at random. This cluster emerges around age 7 through an explosive transition not reproduced by null models. We relate this explosive emergence to polysemy - redundancy in word meanings. Results indicate that the word cluster acts as a core for the lexicon, increasing both lexical navigability and robustness to linguistic degradation. Our findings provide quantitative confirmation of existing conjectures about core structure in the mental lexicon and the importance of integrating multi-relational word-word interactions in psycholinguistic frameworks.

Concepts: Psychology, Linguistics, Language, Word, Lexeme, Psycholinguistics, Noam Chomsky, Lexicon


A child’s first words mark the emergence of a uniquely human ability. Theories of the developmental steps that pave the way for word production have proposed that either vocal or gestural precursors are key. These accounts were tested by assessing the developmental synchrony in the onset of babbling, pointing, and word production for 46 infants observed monthly between the ages of 9 and 18 months. Babbling and pointing did not develop in tight synchrony and babble onset alone predicted first words. Pointing and maternal education emerged as predictors of lexical knowledge only in relation to a measure taken at 18 months. This suggests a far more important role for early phonological development in the creation of the lexicon than previously thought.

Concepts: Scientific method, Prediction, Linguistics, Language, Hypothesis, Human development, Lexeme, Lexicon


This study introduces a method ideally suited for investigating toddlers' ability to detect mispronunciations in lexical representations: pupillometry. Previous research has established that the magnitude of pupil dilation reflects differing levels of cognitive effort. Building on those findings, we use pupil dilation to study the level of detail encoded in lexical representations with 30-month-old children whose lexicons allow for a featurally balanced stimulus set. In each trial, we present a picture followed by a corresponding auditory label. By systematically manipulating the number of feature changes in the onset of the label (e.g., baby∼daby∼faby∼shaby), we tested whether featural distance predicts the degree of pupil dilation. Our findings support the existence of a relationship between featural distance and pupil dilation. First, mispronounced words are associated with a larger degree of dilation than correct forms. Second, words that deviate more from the correct form are related to a larger dilation than words that deviate less. This pattern indicates that toddlers are sensitive to the degree of mispronunciation, and as such it corroborates previous work that found word recognition modulated by sub-segmental detail and by the degree of mismatch. Thus, we establish that pupillometry provides a viable alternative to paradigms that require overt behavioral response in increasing our understanding of the development of lexical representations.

Concepts: Degree, Eye, Word, Degree of a polynomial, The Onset, Lexicon


Frontal and temporal white matter pathways play key roles in language processing, but the specific computations supported by different tracts remain a matter of study. A role in speech planning has been proposed for a recently described pathway, the frontal aslant tract (FAT), which connects the posterior inferior frontal gyrus to the pre-SMA. Here, we use longitudinal functional and structural MRI and behavioral testing to evaluate the behavioral consequences of a lesion to the left FAT that was incurred during surgical resection of a frontal glioma in a 60-year-old woman, Patient AF. The pattern of performance in AF is compared, using the same measures, with that in a 37-year-old individual who underwent a left anterior temporal resection and hippocampectomy (Patient AG). AF and AG were both cognitively intact preoperatively but exhibited specific and doubly dissociable behavioral deficits postoperatively: AF had dysfluent speech but no word finding difficulty, whereas AG had word finding difficulty but otherwise fluent speech. Probabilistic tractography showed that the left FAT was lesioned postoperatively in AF (but not AG) whereas the inferior longitudinal fasciculus was lesioned in AG (but not AF). Those structural changes were supported by corresponding changes in functional connectivity to the posterior inferior frontal gyrus: decreased functional connectivity postoperatively between the posterior inferior frontal gyrus and pre-SMA in AF (but not AG) and decreased functional connectivity between the posterior inferior frontal gyrus and the middle temporal gyrus in AG (but not AF). We suggest from these findings that the left FAT serves as a key communicative link between sentence planning and lexical access processes.

Concepts: Magnetic resonance imaging, Cerebrum, Superior temporal gyrus, Inferior frontal gyrus, Resection, Lexicon


Like many other types of memory formation, novel word learning benefits from an offline consolidation period after the initial encoding phase. A previous EEG study has shown that retrieval of novel words elicited more word-like-induced electrophysiological brain activity in the theta band after consolidation [Bakker, I., Takashima, A., van Hell, J. G., Janzen, G., & McQueen, J. M. Changes in theta and beta oscillations as signatures of novel word consolidation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27, 1286-1297, 2015]. This suggests that theta-band oscillations play a role in lexicalization, but it has not been demonstrated that this effect is directly caused by the formation of lexical representations. This study used magnetoencephalography to localize the theta consolidation effect to the left posterior middle temporal gyrus (pMTG), a region known to be involved in lexical storage. Both untrained novel words and words learned immediately before test elicited lower theta power during retrieval than existing words in this region. After a 24-hr consolidation period, the difference between novel and existing words decreased significantly, most strongly in the left pMTG. The magnitude of the decrease after consolidation correlated with an increase in behavioral competition effects between novel words and existing words with similar spelling, reflecting functional integration into the mental lexicon. These results thus provide new evidence that consolidation aids the development of lexical representations mediated by the left pMTG. Theta synchronization may enable lexical access by facilitating the simultaneous activation of distributed semantic, phonological, and orthographic representations that are bound together in the pMTG.

Concepts: Psychology, Neuroscience, Memory, Cognitive science, Electroencephalography, Lexeme, Psycholinguistics, Lexicon