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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00324

Number of meanings and number of senses: An ERP study of sublexical ambiguities in reading Chinese disyllabic compounds

  • 1Department of Linguistics and Translation, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
  • 2Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
  • 3Institute of Neuroscience, National Yang-Ming University, Taiwan
  • 4Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, National Central University, Taiwan
  • 5Research Center for Mind, Brain and Learning, National Chengchi University, Taiwan

In English, behavioral and neuropsychological evidence suggest that homonymy (words with many distinct meanings) and polysemy (many related senses) may be represented, retrieved, and processed differently in the human brain. In Chinese, most words are compounds, and the constituent characters within a compound word can carry different meanings and/or related senses. Thus, in order to resolve lexical ambiguity in Chinese, one has to consider the composition of constituent characters, as well as how they contribute to whole word reading, known as “sublexical ambiguity.” This study aims to examine how two types of sublexical ambiguity affect Chinese word processing. The number of meanings (NOM) and the number of senses (NOS) corresponding to the first character of Chinese compounds were manipulated in a lexical decision task. The interactions between NOM and NOS were observed in both behavioral results and N400s, in which NOM disadvantage effect was found for words with few-senses only. On the other hand, the NOS facilitation effect was significant for words with multiple-meanings (NOM>1) only. The sublexical ambiguity disadvantage suggested that semantically unrelated morphemes are represented as separate entries. For characters with multiple meanings, one orthographic form is linked to more than one morphemic representation. In contrast, the sublexical sense advantage supported the idea that semantically related senses that shared a morphological root are represented within a single entry. The more senses listed in a morphological root, the stronger representation will be formed. These results suggest that two types of sublexical properties are represented differently in models for Chinese compound word recognition and also demonstrate that how they interact with each other in the mental lexicon.

Keywords: Chinese compounds, Sublexical semantic ambiguity, ERPs, N400, Homonymy, polysemy

Received: 12 Sep 2017; Accepted: 26 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Guillaume Thierry, Bangor University, United Kingdom

Reviewed by:

Urs Maurer, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, China
Jianfeng Yang, Shaanxi Normal University, China  

Copyright: © 2018 Huang and Lee. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Hsu - Wen Huang, City University of Hong Kong, Department of Linguistics and Translation, Kowloon, Hong Kong,