Words, Morphemes, and Syllables in Hebrew and German – a Developmental Cross-Linguistic Comparison of the Basic Units of the Mental Lexicon


Reading is one of the most important human cultural achievements. Much research in the field
of cognitive psychology has focused on the reading process in various languages. Moreover, new
studies of neuroimaging clearly show the durable changes made in the developing brain by the
acquisition of literacy, indicating that reading ability is a lasting new specialization of the brain for
orthographic print (Maurer, Brem, Bucher & Brandeis (2005). Nevertheless, it is still under debate
how the different types of sublexical units, such as letter clusters, syllables, and morphemes, contribute
to the recognition of the whole word while reading. This project will examine how the different basic
units are processed and integrated in visual word recognition: First, how is the meaning of complex
words assembled? Second, what are the sublexical units that guide visual word recognition -
morphemes or syllables? A cross-linguistic comparison between German and Hebrew is of particular
interest, since these languages belong to different language families, Indo-European and Semitic,
respectively, and consequently different typologies, with different phonotactics, morphological
systems, as well as different orthographies (Schwarzwald, 2001; Wiese, 1996). Thus for example,
Indo-European languages are mostly concatentative, that is, morphemes are appended to one another
in a linear fashion, with a relatively smaller amount of word-internal morphology, such as Umlaut in
German. In contrast, Semitic morphology is typically nonconcatenative (McCarthy, 1981): Words
comprise two abstract morphemes, the root and the word pattern, which are intertwined one within the
other. As a result, consonants are more linguistically prominent in Hebrew than vowels (Ravid, 2003,
2005). Linear structures, which also abound in Hebrew, are based upon the nonconcatenative
structures (Ravid, 2006). Against this background, this project will thus ask whether the reading
process in these two languages is differently affected by syllabic, morphemic, or whole-word units.

  • FB Linguistik
Funding sources
Name Project no. Description Period
Sonstige Stiftungen-Lion Stiftung
Further information
Period: 01.02.2010 – 29.01.2011