27 February 2009

Linguistic Factoid No. 7: Semantic Relatedness

How do you know that one word is related to another word? So, are the words animal and bird related? How about spoon and fork? How about restaurant and wine?

People have tried to see whether these words actually have a special relationship in our mind. And most of the time, they test these claims by devising priming studies. These studies consist of giving people a certain stimulus, called a prime, and then they observe the time the person reacts to another stimulus, namely, the target. The idea is, if these two words are related, then when you see the first word, then the second word gets activated as well, and therefore it takes less time for a person to recognize that word than an unrelated word.

Most people have actually devised these experiments, and they have found that the activation actually varies depending on what type of relation a pair of words has. So, words that belong to the same superordinate, such as turkey and goose (they are both animals) prime each other, but words that are just related to the same script or scenario, such as restaurant and wine don't prime as much.

People who do research on these usually have a larger research program that involves seeing the architecture of the brain. These studies usually give light as to how our worlds are organized in our heads.

So, how do you see the world?

(Embassies of Kenya and Armenia, from my Embassy Row Series)

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