Modeling Human Morphological Competence

Yohei Oseki, Alec Marantz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


One of the central debates in the cognitive science of language has revolved around the nature of human linguistic competence. Whether syntactic competence should be characterized by abstract hierarchical structures or reduced to surface linear strings has been actively debated, but the nature of morphological competence has been insufficiently appreciated despite the parallel question in the cognitive science literature. In this paper, in order to investigate whether morphological competence should be characterized by abstract hierarchical structures, we conducted a crowdsourced acceptability judgment experiment on morphologically complex words and evaluated five computational models of morphological competence against human acceptability judgments: Character Markov Models (Character), Syllable Markov Models (Syllable), Morpheme Markov Models (Morpheme), Hidden Markov Models (HMM), and Probabilistic Context-Free Grammars (PCFG). Our psycholinguistic experimentation and computational modeling demonstrated that “morphous” computational models with morpheme units outperformed “amorphous” computational models without morpheme units and, importantly, PCFG with hierarchical structures most accurately explained human acceptability judgments on several evaluation metrics, especially for morphologically complex words with nested morphological structures. Those results strongly suggest that human morphological competence should be characterized by abstract hierarchical structures internally generated by the grammar, not reduced to surface linear strings externally attested in large corpora.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number513740
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Nov 12 2020


  • acceptability
  • computational modeling
  • grammaticality
  • morphology
  • probability
  • psycholinguistics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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