A rows by any other name would smell as suite?

What is the connection between the spelling of a word and its meaning? Does the fact that the words “lead” (the metal) and “lead” (to go in front) are spelled the same somehow make them more similar in meaning than they would be if their spelling differed? A recent paper by Peleg and colleagues published in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Memory & Cognition presents several elegant studies designed to address this question (and more generally, the extent to which the written, spoken, and conceptual representations of words are linked).

According to several prominent theories, when people view a picture—of a rose, for example—they can access its meaning—a romantic, sweet smelling flower— directly—without activating the object’s name. However, a growing literature has found that people do in fact access names of objects they are looking at even when it is not strictly necessary.

But what exactly do we mean by “name”? Is it its sound: /ˈrōz/? Its spelling (orthography): “r”, “o”, “s”, “e”, or is it both?

To find out, Peleg and colleagues took advantage of homonyms, homophones, and homographs. Time for some definitions! Two words are homonyms if they are both spelled and pronounced the same: “bat” (the kind that live in caves”), “bat” (the kind used in baseball). Two words are homophones if they are spelled differently, but have the same pronunciation: “flour”/“flower”. Two words are homographs if they are spelled the same, but pronounced differently, as in the earlier example of “lead” (‘type of metal’ and ‘to go in front’).

To the frustration (and amusement) of second language speakers of English and of children learning to read and write, English has an abundance of homonymshomographs, and homophones. Other languages have even more. For example, in an abjad writing system like Hebrew, letters represent consonants only. Vowels—written as diacritics below and within the consonants—are generally omitted, resulting in numerous homographs. This feature of Hebrew makes it an ideal language for studying the relationships between meaning, sound, and spelling.

In the first experiment, Peleg and colleagues presented participants with pairs of pictures—shown one at a time—and subjects indicated whether the two pictures were related in meaning. For example, if they saw a picture of a pen and a piece of paper, they would answer “yes”. If they saw a picture of a pen and a shovel, or of a ruler and a shovel, they would answer “no”.

These pairs were cleverly designed such that the names of the objects in some of the unrelated pairs were homophones. For example, in Hebrew, “pen” and “shovel” are homophones: they are both pronounced /et/, but are spelled differently. Other pairs were homographs, or homonyms, while the others were unrelated in their sound or spelling. The figure below explains those relationships.

The authors reasoned that if, when viewing pictures, people access the sound of their names, people should be slower (or make more errors) when judging two pictures as being different in meaning if those pictures are homophones or homonyms (i.e., have the same-sounding name). By contrast, if people access the written form of the names, they should be slowed down or make more errors if the pictures are homographs or homonyms (i.e., share a spelling). Finally, if people can judge the relatedness of pictures without accessing their names at all, then the homonyms/homophones/homographs relationship should make no difference.

Participants were only slower and more error-prone in responding to homonym pairs, suggesting that people accessed both the written and spoken form of the pictures, but sharing just spelling or just the sound was not sufficient to cause interference.

This first experiment left open an important question: The pictures were presented one at a time and so people had to remember what the first picture was when viewing the second picture. This may have served as an encouragement to deliberately name the pictures as a memory aid. In a follow-up study, both pictures were therefore shown simultaneously. In this study, all three relatedness types—homonyms, homophones, and homographs—now produced slower response times, again suggesting that participants were accessing both the sound and the written form of the pictures. Interestingly, only homonyms and homographs produced more errors, suggesting that the written form was more salient than the spoken form.

However, only a speaker of Hebrew should appreciate the (homophonic) relationship between a pen and a shovel. To show that this was indeed the case, Peleg and colleagues gave English speakers and Hebrew speakers a semantic relatedness task with all the different picture pairs. Hebrew speakers thought a pen was a bit similar to a shovel, that a book and a barber (homographs) were somewhat related, and (especially) that maps were similar to tablecloths (homonyms). English speakers thought no such thing.

Taken together, these results suggest that what something is called and how it is spelled influences semantic decisions: the links between meaning, sound, and spelling are tighter than some theories admit.

But are these links equally strong in all people? Back in graduate school I polled several hundred undergraduates as to whether they heard words when they were silently reading. My intuition—based on my own reading experience—was that the overwhelming answer would be “no.” In actuality, about 60% of my sample responded that they did indeed hear sounds when reading. If such introspective judgments are to be believed, most people have stronger spelling-to-sound links than I do. In contrast, I often find myself rather vividly seeing letters when I think of a word, suggesting strong meaning to spelling links. Such individual differences—if they exist—suggest an area ripe for future exploration.

Article mentioned in this post:

Peleg, O., Edelist, L., Eviatar, Z., Bergerbest, D. (2015). Lexical factors in conceptual processes: The relationship between semantic representations and their corresponding phonological and orthographic lexical forms.Memory & Cognition. DOI: 10.3758/s13421-015-0576-5.

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