Can you reach for the planets? - The processing and storage of complex word formations in memory


Humans possess—in contrast to animals—the ability to construct meaning in an almost endless number of word combinations. This ability has been extensively studied regarding the combination of words in sentences. However, how meaning is constructed regarding complex word formations remains an unsettled issue. For example, the meaning of word combinations ranges from completely transparent, as in ankommen (‘arrive at’) to rather obscured (‘opaque’), as in umkommen (‘perish’). Given that the meaning of ‘opaque’ word combinations cannot be derived from the meaning of the single parts, linguistic, psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic research are puzzled by the following questions: How is the meaning of complex word combinations stored and processed – as a whole or via the single constituents? That is, do we process the meaning of kommen on reading umkommen? The aim of the proposed project is to investigate this issue in full detail for German word formations.

Levels of word complexity will be manipulated by using different levels of meaning units:

(a) stems that do or do not possess a meaning of their own, like führen (‘guide’) and *letzen in verführen (‘seduce’) and verletzen (‘hurt’), respectively,

(b) whole-word combinations as in schwarzfahren (‘dodge the fare’), and

(c) idioms like jemandem in den Rücken fallen (‘betray’) that represent the extreme form of word combinations.

If the meaning of complex word combinations is stored and processed as a single lexical entry, the meaning of the parts should not play a role. If, however, complex word formations are stored and processed via their parts, the meaning of these parts will affect the processing and retrieval of the whole word meaning. Interdisciplinary methods—speeded paraphrase judgments, intra-modal and cross-modal single word and sentence priming with lexical decision tasks in behavioral and electrophysiological experiments—will gauge the degree to which the different parts are processed and represented independent of the meaning of the whole formation. Further insight into the nature of lexical representation will be gained by exploring how lexical representations are acquired: Do children start out by processing the meaning of the whole formation or by processing that of the parts?

This project will fill the gap of knowledge regarding the lexical representation of complex word formations in German both in the developed brain of adults and in the developing brain of children.

  • Department of Linguistics
Funding sources
Name Finanzierungstyp Kategorie Project no.
Volkswagen-Stiftung third-party funds research funding program 561/11
Further information
Period: 16.10.2011 – 15.10.2016