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LEARNING NOVEL MORPHOLOGY: The Role of meaning and orientation of attention at initial exposure

  • Emma Marsden (a1), John Williams (a2) and Xierong Liu (a3)


A large body of research has shown that suffixes—both inflectional and derivational—can be primed with adult native speakers, which informs our understanding of storage and access to morphology in mature systems. However, this line of research has not yet been conducted from an acquisition perspective: Little is known about whether or not representations of suffixes are formed after very little exposure to new morphology and, if so, about the nature of those representations or about the influence of attentional orientation and meaning at this initial stage. The three experiments reported here begin to address this gap by investigating the nature of suffixal representations following exposure to a small regular system of suffixed words. The experiment used crossmodal priming of recognition memory judgments to probe morphological representation. Although the lack of priming suggested that abstract morphological representations were not yet established, recognition judgments showed a clear sensitivity to sublexical morphemic units. The pattern of results was unaffected by the orientation of attention or the assignation of meaning to the words or suffixes during training. Offline tests of learning stem and suffix meanings also showed that both were learned to some extent even when attention was not oriented to their meanings and that the resulting knowledge was partially implicit. Thus, there was evidence of sensitivity to both the forms and meanings of the suffixes but not at the level required to support crossmodal priming. We argue that the reason for this may lie in the episodic nature of the knowledge gained after brief exposure.


Corresponding author

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Emma Marsden, Centre for Language Learning Research, Department of Education, University of York, York, UK, YO10 5DD. E-mail:


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