When non-commitment makes sense: An experimental approach to the retrieval and mental representation of irregular polysemes
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Because many words of a language have more than one meaning, readers regularly need to disambiguate words during sentence comprehension. Using priming, eye-tracking, and event-related brain potentials, this thesis tested whether readers differently disambiguate words with semantically related meanings like wire and cone, referred to as irregular polysemes, and words with unrelated meanings like bank and calf, referred to as homonyms. The frequency of use of the multiple meanings was additionally manipulated (e.g., wire vs. cone and bank vs. calf ). Throughout experiments, polysemes with one frequent and one infrequent meaning, like wire, were accessed and integrated differently from homonyms with one frequent and one infrequent meaning, like bank. Polysemes with two about equally frequent meanings, like cone, on the other hand, were accessed but not integrated similarly to homonyms with two about equally frequent meanings, like calf. More specifically, results suggest that, in the absence of biasing context, semantic relatedness allows readers to not commit to a specific interpretation of an irregular polyseme, whereas unrelated meanings of homonyms were retrieved in order of their frequency. However, the less related the meanings of polysemes were, the more similarly these words were accessed to homonyms. Moreover, when context supported less frequent meanings of words with one frequent and one infrequent reading, context and frequency bias competed, regardless of semantic relatedness. Results from event-related potentials additionally suggest that polysemes with one frequent and one infrequent meaning are accessed faster than their homonymous counterparts. However, fast access led to delayed meaning integration. For ambiguous words with two equally frequent readings, lexical decision times for targets of both meanings decreased over time with no reliable difference between polysemes and homonyms. However, in sentence contexts, despite being retrieved similarly homonyms but not polysemes with two equally frequent meanings were integrated more slowly than their unambiguous control words. Results are discussed with respect to a model of the representation and retrieval of ambiguous words where the various senses of words with related but not unrelated meanings share features. Under this model, activation of the shared semantic features of an irregular polyseme allows fast access and delay of commitment, provided that no biasing context is available. When conclusive context is available, however, readers immediately commit to the contextually induced meaning of the polyseme. In addition, when meanings are about equally frequent, the unshared features of polysemes compete for retrieval, leading to strong activation of both meanings, while the shared features help overcome the competition. Finally, when unshared features of polysemes need to be strongly activated in addition to the shared features, unshared features are activated more strongly for a word's more frequent than less frequent meaning.