Everyday Examples of Mental Lexicon Representations

I had a conversation with a colleague the other day, which really made me laugh. I think most people would have found it funny! But I also found it fascinating – through my linguistics-tinted glasses 🙂

My colleague was talking about her old, lazy lodger, who was rather reluctant to do jobs around the house, even when he himself complained that they needed doing. She described the situation something like this:

He complains that it all needs doing, but he’s too lazy, he really does tiddly-winks!

Cue raucous laughter on my part. Tiddly-winks?? What does that have to do with being lazy? Once the laughter died down, it took us a minute or two to come up with the word she was actually looking for: He is lazy, he does diddly squat!  (i.e. nothing)

The conversation moved on, comparing the tiddly-winks guy to her new lodger. He, it seems, is much more active, and can’t stop tidying up and doing odd jobs around the place. Her description of him?


It’s almost obsessive. My psychologist friend says he probably a bit ACDC!

ACDC? The new synonym for hard-working? No. She of course meant OCD – well… it IS kind of similar!

Once again, laughter on both sides. I even had a chuckle to myself in the car on the way home when I remembered her great quotes! And then my linguist brain kicked in, and I remembered an interesting talk I’d heard recently at our English Linguists Circle about how lexis is represented in the brain, the mental lexicon. Like a light bulb pinging above my head, I realised that what had originally been an after-lunch natter on a slow day at the office, actually provided amusing examples of how our brains store and recall words.

Aitchison (“Words in the Mind”, 2003) explains that a word’s meanings and word class are separated from the sound of the word in the mental lexicon, because semantic knowledge is the most important trigger when activating words for production whereas phonology is the more important trigger in the recognition of words. In this scheme, word lemmas (i.e. with information about meaning and word class) are organised in semantic fields, which are held together by strong connections between coordinates of the same word class. A semantic field is a group of words which are used to talk about the same phenomenon – the words are sometimes hyponyms of a more general term.

A clear everyday example: If I say “knife”, what other words do you think of? Probably “fork” and “spoon”. These words form a set of semantically related items – all hyponyms of ‘cutlery’.


Ok, what about “red”, “yellow”, “pink”…? You probably think of “green”, “purple”, “orange”, “blue”, and a whole list of other colours. It should be  clear that these words are also members of a semantic field; they all belong to the same word class (they’re usually categorised as adjectives), and are all used to talk about the same phenomenon (colour).

In the examples from my colleague’s quotes, though, the confusion of words leading to her amusing slips does not seem to have come from the semantic organisation of her mental lexicon – although Aitchson says that this is most important for production. We know  that the meaning of “tiddly-winks” (a game, see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiddlywinks), is not used to describe a phenomenon that is any way comparable to “diddly squat”, although they happen to both be nouns. So the confusion leading to the funny slips of the tongue must have its roots somewhere else.

According to Aitchison, a word’s phonological form, i.e. its sound structure, also influences how it is stored in the mental lexicon, with similar-sounding words organised together, in order to enable effective speech comprehension. For example, rhyming words such as “cat”, “rat”, “mat”, “bat” are easily misheard and confused with each other. Imagine being at a loud party and your friend shouts “Oh my gosh! Look, a rat!” It’s of course possible that with all the noise, you hear “Oh my gosh, you look fat!” But the comprehension of speech is highly dependent on contextual clues. We have all been in a situation where we think we have heard what someone has said, but still have the feeling that what we think has been said would not make sense, or be appropriate, in the given context. For example, it is unlikely, I imagine, that a friend with whom we have gone to a party would suddenly turn to us and shout that we are fat! We can either ask the person to repeat themselves, or we can figure it out on our own, by looking for similar-sounding words which might fit in the context of the conversation. Indeed, this is what linguists (and psychologsists for that matter) believe happens subconsciously all the time – put simply, recognition of lexical input is based on multiple factors from which our brain calculates the most likely intended meaning and so ‘triggers’ the activation of these items in the mental lexicon. Aitchison explains that similar words compete for activation, in recognition as well as in production, and sometimes the wrong one is chosen, which leads either to misunderstanding speech input, or making errors, like my colleague. That phonologically similar words are more difficult to recall has been shown by plenty of research (e.g. Copeland & Radvansky, 2001 / Yip, 2004): studies into this ‘phonological-similarity effect’ thus provide support for this idea that words compete to be used, and this can sometimes lead to blending or blocking errors, like tiddly-winks!

Another thing that makes these errors interesting is that, according to theories in the area, the more frequent an expression is the more likely are we to pick it over a less frequent one (i.e. more frequent words have greater memory strength). I’m not sure that a modern corpus would show ACDC as more frequently used than OCD … but (without wanting to psychoanalyse my colleague to much!), these errors seem to highlight how individuals’ “corpora” of linguistic reception are probably made up differently.

Tiddlywinks a children's game involving flicking little plastic chips into a cup

The question remains, then, of why my colleague’s production errors seem to have been caused by phonological similarity, although Aitchison says this is mostly used for recognition rather than production. Well, any models of the exact structure of the mental lexicon are sadly just that – models; vastly simplified versions of what they represent. But what is generally agreed upon is the fact that the mental lexicon has to strive for the most efficient compromise between the best organisation of representations for production and for recognition. So there’s something like a tug of war going on in our heads, with the optimum organisation for production competing against the optimum organisation for recognition – and don’t forget that the mental lexicon is also influenced by memory’s needs and other functions! My colleague herself admitted she was feeling tired on the day of our amusing chat, and the slips she made would seem to highlight two key points:

1) that the semantic and phonological representations of any item are not entirely separated, so that either type of representation may be used to activate a word for recognition or production. Although it may be the case (and indeed seems very logical if you look at how we approach finding a word that we want to say/write in a certain context) that semantic organisation is more helpful for production, it definitely is not the case the phonological representations play no role at all in the activation of lexical items for production.

2) that physical conditions can impaire the brain’s ability to direct and manipulate the usual decision-making mechanisms used to activate the correct lexical items – but that these breakdowns in normal service can actually reveal a lot about the mental lexicon and how we access it. We can find anecdotal as well as scientific evidence to support this idea .   I’ve recently read, for example, about schizophrenics’ language use, which highlights the competition going on within the mental lexicon (e.g. Obrebska & Obrebska, 2007) . And, of course, my colleague’s tiredness led to some amusing examples, which can not only be used to cheer us up on a rainy February day, but also provide a little amusing insight into the wonders of the mental leprechaun… I mean, lexicon! 🙂


Aitchison, J., Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon (Blackwell, 2003)

Copeland, D. & G. Radvansky, “Phonological Similarity in Working Memory”, Memory & Cognition, 2001, 29 (5), 774-776. Accessed at http://www3.nd.edu/~memory/Reprints/Copeland%20&%20Radvansky%202001%20(Memory%20&%20Cognition).pdf on 20.2.2014

Obrebska, M. & T. Obrebska, “Lexical and grammatical Analysis of Schizophrenic Patients’ Language: A Preliminary Report”, Psychology of Language and Communication, 2007, Vol. 11, No. 1, 63-72. Accessed at http://www.plc.psychologia.pl/plc/plc/contents/fulltext/11-1_4.pdf on 20.2.2014.

Yip, M.C.W., “What is similar in phonological-similarity effect?, School of Arts & Social Sciences, The Open University of Hong Kong, 2004. Accessed at http://www.cogsci.northwestern.edu/cogsci2004/ma/ma155.pdf on 20.2.14


3 thoughts on “Everyday Examples of Mental Lexicon Representations

  1. With regards to L2 vocab learning, you mean? Well, I’d say our understandings of the mental lexicon would suggest that learning new words simply from word lists, i.e. not used in context, might lead to insufficient semantic connections being built up between words, which could negatively affect the learner’s ability to ‘access’ the right lexical item when producing language. I’d also say that we need to train students in understanding morphological links between word families to help increase their vocab inventories and ability to access related words. Also words which are ‘known’ in written form may not be recognised and understood in speech, if the students have never encountered them orally, so a mix of written and oral exposure is necessary.
    Not sure that helps with starting a thesis, but there’s plenty of literature out there which discusses these things!
    Good luck 🙂


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