Roots, stems, and the universality of lexical representations: Evidence from Hebrew

Iris Berent, Vered Vaknin, Gary F. Marcus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Is the structure of lexical representations universal, or do languages vary in the fundamental ways in which they represent lexical information? Here, we consider a touchstone case: whether Semitic languages require a special morpheme, the consonantal root. In so doing, we explore a well-known constraint on the location of identical consonants that has often been used as motivation for root representations in Semitic languages: Identical consonants frequently occur at the end of putative roots (e.g., skk), but rarely occur in their beginning (e.g., ssk). Although this restriction has traditionally been stated over roots, an alternative account could be stated over stems, a representational entity that is found more widely across the world's languages. To test this possibility, we investigate the acceptability of a single set of roots, manifesting identity initially, finally or not at all (e.g., ssk versus skk versus rmk) across two nominal paradigms: CéCeC (a paradigm in which identical consonants are rare) and CiCúC (a paradigm in which identical consonants are frequent). If Semitic lexical representations consist of roots only, then similar restrictions on consonant co-occurrence should be observed in the two paradigms. Conversely, if speakers store stems, then the restriction on consonant co-occurrence might be modulated by the properties of the nominal paradigm (be it by means of statistical properties or their grammatical sources). Findings from rating and lexical decision experiments with both visual and auditory stimuli support the stem hypothesis: compared to controls (e.g., rmk), forms with identical consonants (e.g., ssk, skk) are less acceptable in the CéCeC than in the CiCúC paradigm. Although our results do not falsify root-based accounts, they strongly raise the possibility that stems could account for the observed restriction on consonantal identity. As such, our results raise fresh challenge to the notion that different languages require distinct sets of representational resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)254-286
Number of pages33
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2007


  • Hebrew
  • Morphology
  • Paradigm
  • Phonology
  • Root
  • Semitic
  • Stem

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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