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Food in the corner and money in the cashews: Semantic activation of embedded stems in the presence or absence of a morphological structure


In visual word identification, readers automatically access word internal information: they recognize orthographically embedded words (e.g., HAT in THAT) and are sensitive to morphological structure (DEAL–ER, BASKET–BALL). The exact mechanisms that govern these processes, however, are not well established yet – how is this information used? What is the role of affixes in this process? To address these questions, we tested the activation of meaning of embedded word stems in the presence or absence of a morphological structure using two semantic categorization tasks in Italian. Participants made category decisions on words (e.g., is CARROT a type of food?). Some no-answers (is CORNER a type of food?) contained category-congruent embedded word stems (i.e., CORN–). Moreover, the embedded stems could be accompanied by a pseudo-suffix (-er in CORNER) or a non-morphological ending (-ce in PEACE) – this allowed gauging the role of pseudo-suffixes in stem activation. The analyses of accuracy and response times revealed that words were harder to reject as members of a category when they contained an embedded word stem that was indeed category-congruent. Critically, this was the case regardless of the presence or absence of a pseudo-suffix. These findings provide evidence that the lexical identification system activates the meaning of embedded word stems when the task requires semantic information. This study brings together research on orthographic neighbors and morphological processing, yielding results that have important implications for models of visual word processing.

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  1. 1.

    See also Davis and Taft (2005), for converging evidence from nonwords; Davis, Perea, and Acha (2009), for similar evidence from unprimed LDT; and Weingärtner, Juhasz, and Rayner (2012), for evidence from eye tracking.

  2. 2.

    In the original analysis, response times were logarithmically transformed to normalize the distribution of the residuals based on inspection of a Box-Cox plot (MASS package, Venables & Ripley, 2002). The pattern of effects was identical. For completeness, we present this original analysis in the Supplementary Material.

  3. 3.

    In the original analysis, response times were inversely transformed to normalize the distribution of the residuals based on inspection of a Box-Cox plot (MASS package, Venables & Ripley, 2002). The pattern of effects was identical. For completeness, we present this original analysis in the Supplementary Material.


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Correspondence to Jana Hasenäcker.

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This research was supported by the ERC Starting Grant no. 679010 (StatLearn) awarded to Davide Crepaldi

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Hasenäcker, J., Solaja, O. & Crepaldi, D. Food in the corner and money in the cashews: Semantic activation of embedded stems in the presence or absence of a morphological structure. Psychon Bull Rev 27, 155–161 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-019-01664-z

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  • Visual word recognition
  • Morphological processing
  • Semantic categorization
  • Embedded words