Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 14 March 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00222

Compound words prompt arbitrary semantic associations in conceptual memory

  • 1ESRC Bilingualism Centre, Bangor University, Bangor, UK
  • 2School of Psychology, Bangor University, Bangor, UK
  • 3Department of Psychology, Penn State University, PA, USA

Linguistic relativity theory has received empirical support in domains such as color perception and object categorization. It is unknown, however, whether relations between words idiosyncratic to language impact non-verbal representations and conceptualizations. For instance, would one consider the concepts of horse and sea as related were it not for the existence of the compound seahorse? Here, we investigated such arbitrary conceptual relationships using a non-linguistic picture relatedness task in participants undergoing event-related brain potential recordings. Picture pairs arbitrarily related because of a compound and presented in the compound order elicited N400 amplitudes similar to unrelated pairs. Surprisingly, however, pictures presented in the reverse order (as in the sequence horsesea) reduced N400 amplitudes significantly, demonstrating the existence of a link in memory between these two concepts otherwise unrelated. These results break new ground in the domain of linguistic relativity by revealing predicted semantic associations driven by lexical relations intrinsic to language.

Keywords: semantics, concepts, compound-words, linguistic relativity, ERPs

Citation: Boutonnet B, McClain R and Thierry G (2014) Compound words prompt arbitrary semantic associations in conceptual memory. Front. Psychol. 5:222. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00222

Received: 19 July 2013; Accepted: 26 February 2014;
Published online: 14 March 2014.

Edited by:

Carlo Semenza, Università degli Studi di Padova, Italy

Reviewed by:

Giorgio Arcara, IRCCS, Fondazione Ospedale San Camillo, Italy
Greg Poarch, University of Tuebingen, Germany

Copyright © 2014 Boutonnet, McClain and Thierry. 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) or licensor 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: Guillaume Thierry, School of Psychology, Brigantia Building, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2AS, UK e-mail: g.thierry@bangor.ac.uk

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