Spelling and Reading Novel Homophones

Spelling and Reading Novel Homophones

First Author: Jayde Homer -- University of Washington in St. Louis
Additional authors/chairs: 
Rebecca Treiman
Keywords: Spelling, Novel Homophones, Phonology, Morphology, Reading
Abstract / Summary: 

Purpose: Lexical distinctiveness, according to which a written form represents one and only one morpheme, is a feature of some writing systems. For example, <magic> retains its spelling when its pronunciation changes in <magician> and <bear> and <bare> are spelled differently. In two experiments, we asked whether readers and spellers benefit from distinctive spellings of homophones.

Method: In the spelling experiment, university students heard 40 passages each containing a novel homophone (e.g., /kel/ used to mean a gossip-lover). In the reading experiment, participants read the passages. Half of the novel homophones were spelled homographically (e.g., <kale>), and half were spelled heterographically (e.g., <kail>). Participants answered questions about the novel word either by choosing between two spelling options (e.g, <kale> vs <kail>) or producing their own spelling. We also asked participants about whether new words in a language should have distinctive spellings.

Results: Participants in the spelling choice task chose heterographic spellings more frequently than homographic ones, in line with their stated preference for lexical distinctiveness. In the production task, however, participants produced more homographic than heterographic spellings. Participants in the reading experiment did not differentially produce or choose heterographic spellings.

Conclusion: These findings question whether lexical distinctiveness is an essential feature of the English writing system. People state a preference for and choose distinctive spellings. However, heterographic spellings are not easier to learn from reading nor do they dominate in production, a more natural spelling task. Various factors work against lexical distinctiveness, including the challenge of generating novel spellings.