Real Words, Possible Words, and New Words

Janet PierrehumbertNorthwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA; New Zealand Institute of Language Brain and Behaviour, Christchurch NZ.

Abstract

Phonologists and psycholinguists draw a three-way distinction amongst real words, possible words, and impossible words.The distinction between real words and possible words provides the foundation for lexical decision experiments. The distinction between possible words and impossible words reveals implicit cognitive generalizations about words in a language, and thereby contributes to the understanding of language acquisition and processing. Left to the side in this vast body of theory and experimental results is a real understanding of new words. Is a new word just a new random selection from the possible words? No. First of all, some possible words are more possible than others. Second, there's an important distinction between the creation of a new word, and its adoption by the linguistic community. The creation of a new word is a manifestation of an individual person's cognitive system. But to be widely adopted, it must successfully compete with other words to be used in discourse. In this paper, I review a series of results on how and why some possible words are more possible than others. Then, I will introduce work in progress that looks at the interaction of social and cognitive factors in processing new words.

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