Number of meanings and number of senses : An ERP study of sublexical ambiguities in reading chinese disyllabic compounds

Research output: Journal Publications and Reviews (RGC: 21, 22, 62)21_Publication in refereed journal

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Original languageEnglish
Article number324
Journal / PublicationFrontiers in Psychology
Online published29 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2018



In English, an extensive body of work in both behavioral and neuropsychological domains has produced strong evidence that homonymy (words with many distinct meanings) and polysemy (many related senses) are represented, retrieved, and processed differently in the human brain. In Chinese, most words are compounds, and the constituent characters within a compound word can have different meanings and/or related senses on their own. Thus, in order to resolve lexical ambiguity in Chinese, one has to consider the composition of constituent characters, as well as how they contribute to whole word reading, known as "sublexical ambiguity." This study investigates how two types of sublexical ambiguity affect Chinese word processing. The number of meanings (NOM) and the number of senses (NOS) corresponding to the first character of Chinese compounds were manipulated in a lexical decision task. The interactions between NOM and NOS were observed in both behavioral results and N400s, in which NOM disadvantage effect was found for words with few-senses only. On the other hand, the NOS facilitation effect was significant for words with multiple-meanings (NOM > 1) only. The sublexical ambiguity disadvantage suggested that semantically unrelated morphemes are represented as separate entries. For characters with multiple meanings, one orthographic form is associated with more than one morphemic representation. In contrast, the sublexical sense advantage supported the idea that semantically related senses that shared a morphological root are represented within a single entry. The more senses listed in a morphological root, the stronger representation will be formed. These results suggest that two types of sublexical ambiguities are represented and processed differently in Chinese word recognition models and also demonstrate that how they interact with each other in the mental lexicon.

Research Area(s)

  • Chinese compounds, ERPs, Homonymy, N400, Polysemy, Sublexical semantic ambiguity

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