Meanings within meanings: Skilled readers activate the meanings of phonetic cues in Chinese

Meanings within meanings: Skilled readers activate the meanings of phonetic cues in Chinese

First Author: Matthew Cooper Borkenhagen -- University of Wisconsin - Madison
Additional authors/chairs: 
Tianlin Wang; Mark Seidenberg
Keywords: Semantics, Orthography, (Chinese) characters, Chinese, Writing Systems
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose. Many characters in written Chinese consist of components that provide probabilistic cues to meaning (radical) or pronunciation (phonetic). Previous studies have shown that phonetics influence the processing of the characters in which they occur (e.g., Seidenberg, 1980; Taft, Zhu, & Peng, 1999; Zhou & Marslen-Wilson, 1999). We investigated whether readers automatically activate the semantics associated with a familiar phonetic even when it is putatively irrelevant. This would call into question the traditional analysis of such characters as consisting of distinct semantic and phonetic components.

Method. We used a lexical decision task to investigate the semantic activation of sub-lexical phonetic orthographic units in reading Chinese. We used primes that were either semantically related to the overall character, the sub-lexical component, or not related to either, while controlling for frequency of the target character.

Results. Latencies were significantly faster when primes were related to the meaning of the phonetic and related to the meaning of the entire target as compared to unrelated prime-target pairs. The magnitudes of the priming effects were modulated by frequency of the target, with larger effects for lower frequency targets.

Conclusions. Results indicate that readers activate the semantics of a phonetic even when it is unrelated to the meaning of the character. This suggests that the irrelevant semantics may influence the meaning of a character and the concept itself, although how deeply remains to be determined. The results also challenge standard analyses in which such characters are considered morphemes because phonetics can also contribute to meaning.