Production of Complex Words

With Ariel M. Cohen-Goldberg

Most of the words we speak have more than one morpheme (e.g., have a suffix, prefix, or root). In this line of work, we wanted to know how we produce these multimorphemic words. Do we deal with each morpheme separately, or do we process the whole word as one unit?

Until recently, the evidence suggested that there was a difference between the representations of multimorphemic words in production and perception. In perception, it was widely believed that both whole-word and root representations exist, while in production there had been little evidence for whole-word representations. Using a large corpus of spontaneous production of English, we demonstrate that whole-word and root frequency (the frequency with which they appear in the English language) independently predict the duration of words suffixed with –ing, –ed, and –s, which reveals that both root and word representations play a role in the production of inflected English words. In contrast, we find that only whole-word frequency predicts the duration of compound words. This suggests that compounds are treated as whole words.