Lemma (psycholinguistics)

In psycholinguistics, a lemma (plural lemmas or lemmata) is an abstract conceptual form of a word that has been mentally selected for utterance in the early stages of speech production.[1] A lemma represents a specific meaning but does not have any specific sounds that are attached to it.

When we produce a word, we are essentially turning our thoughts into sounds, a process known as lexicalisation. In many psycholinguistic models this is considered to be at least a two-stage process. The first stage deals with semantics and syntax; the result of the first stage is an abstract notion of a word that represents a meaning and contains information about how the word can be used in a sentence. It does not, however, contain information about how the word is pronounced. The second stage deals with the phonology of the word; it attaches information about the sounds that will have to be uttered. The result of the first stage is the lemma in this model; the result of the second stage is referred to as the lexeme.

This two-staged model is the most widely supported theory of speech production in psycholinguistics,[2] although it has been challenged.[3] For example, there is some evidence to indicate that the grammatical gender of a noun is retrieved from the word's phonological form (the lexeme) rather than from the lemma.[4] This can be explained by models that do not assume a distinct level between the semantic and the phonological stages (and so lack a lemma representation).[3]

The concept of lemma is similar to the Sanskrit sphoṭa (6th century), an invariant mental word, of which the sound is a feature.[5]

See also


  1. Warren, Paul (2012). Introducing Psycholinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 243. ISBN 0521130565. Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  2. Harley, T. (2005). The Psychology of Language. Hove; New York: Psychology Press. p. 359.
  3. 1 2 Caramazza, A. (1997). "How many levels of processing are there in lexical access?". Cognitive Neuropsychology. 14: 177208. doi:10.1080/026432997381664.
  4. Starreveld, P. A.; La Heij, W. (2004). "Phonological facilitation of grammatical gender retrieval" (PDF). Language and Cognitive Processes. 19 (6): 677711. doi:10.1080/01690960444000061.
  5. Coward, Harold G. "The Sphoṭa theory of language as Relevation". TIL (Tun Institute of Learning). Retrieved 24 March 2015.
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