Meaning Overrides Frequency in Idiomatic and Compositional Multiword Chunks


In line with usage-based accounts, recent psycholinguistic studies have confirmed that frequency of occurrence impacts processing latencies for multiword strings (e.g., Arnon & Snider, 2010). However, these studies have not been concerned with the meaning of the multiword chunks in question, which is central to accounts of formulaic language rooted in cognitive linguistics (e.g., Wray, 2002). Here, we address this issue by comparing processing latencies for three types of multiword chunks: idiomatic expressions, meaningful compositional phrases, and less meaningful fragments. All three chunk types were matched for whole- and sub-string frequency. Our results show that frequency facilitates processing for all three chunk types, but to a lesser extent than their “meaningfulness” (as assessed in a separate norming study), indicating that the meanings of multiword expressions may have implications for models of language processing which extend beyond those of frequency of occurrence.

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