Lexico mental

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Lecture 12: The Mental Lexicon
The mental lexicon differs radically from a dictionary. There are so many words and they are found so fast. Native speakers can recognize a word of their language in 200ms or less and can reject a non-word sound sequence in about half a second. When I showed you the non-words last lecture, it took you very little time to reject them as words. This speed isastonishing given how many words you would have to search through if you systematically examined the contents of your mental lexicon in order to reject such non-words. Just how many words are we talking about? Adults usually grossly underestimate the size of their vocabulary, guessing that it is between 1 and 10 percent of the real level. The French writer Georges Simenon was reported to have said that hemade his style as simple as possible because he had read that over half the people in France used no more than a total of 600 words. He also claimed to have slept with 10,000 women. Aitchison suggests that at the very least he should exchange the numbers of words and women, but that 10,000 would still underestimate the vocabulary of an educated adult.
In a 1940 study Seashore & Ericksonestimated that an educated adult knows more than 150,000 words and be able to use 90% of these. To arrive at this figure they prepared a list of 1,320 words by taking every third word down in the first column of every left hand page of the 1937 edition. They divided the list into four and asked hundreds of college students to define them and use them in illustrative sentences. The proportions correctwere applied to the overall number of words in the whole dictionary to produce the overall total of 150,000 words. Some of the problems with this procedure are the definition of a 'word' and the 'big dictionary effect'.
The reading vocabulary of the average American high school graduate has been assessed at 40,000 words. If proper names of people and places, ands idiomatic expressions are includedthe total rises to 60,000.
This large vocabulary size is in stark contrast to that of the "talking apes". Washoe and Nim Chimpsky, two chimps, learned about 200 signs each, Koko the gorilla had a vocabulary of about 400 signs. None of the apes came close to the 2,000 word vocabularies achieved by most children soon after the age of 2.
The Familiarity Effect
Although an enormous vocabulary isavailable to any speaker of a language not all of these words have equal status. One of the most firmly established statistical facts about words is that some of them are used far more than others. For example, Hartvig Dahl has counted the frequency of different words in a transcript of 1,058,888 running words of spoken conversation. He found that the most frequently spoken word was the firstperson singular; on the average every sixteenth word was "I". The top twenty words are listed below and together they made up 37% of the total sample.
The Twenty English Words Occurring Most Frequently in Personal Discourse
Rank Word Percentage
1 I 6.2
2 and 9.7
3 the 12.6
4 to 15.4
5 that 18.0
6 you 20.5
7 it 22.4
8 of 24.3
9 a 26.2
10 know 27.6
11 was 29.0
12 uh 30.4
13 in 31.614 but 32.5
15 is 33.3
16 this 34.2
17 me 35.0
18 about 35.8
19 just 36.6
20 don't 37.3

Only one of these frequent words is an open-class or content word, all the others are closed class function words, little words that give grammatical shape to phrases and sentences. Just 42 different word types made up 50% of the sample. Similar data for written texts show a greater variety in thechoice of words. Whereas Dahl found only 17,871 different word types in his sample of 1,058,888 spoken words, Kucera and Francis found 50,406 different word types in their sample of 1,014,232 written words. A few words are overworked, most are neglected.
The familiarity effect illustrates a clear difference between the mental lexicon and a dictionary. In a dictionary it takes no longer to look up a...
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