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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Mouse-mole-vole: The inconspicuous benefit of phonology during retrieval from semantic memory


When concepts are retrieved from memory, this process occurs within a rich search space where multiple sources of information interact with each other. Although the mapping from wordform to meaning is generally considered to be arbitrary, there is recent evidence to suggest that form and meaning may be correlated in natural language, and semantic and phonological cues may interact during retrieval. However, whether phonology interacts with meaning-related information in deeper semantic retrieval tasks, and whether this interaction has broader implications for how we conceptualize semantic retrieval remains relatively understudied. We examined these questions within the framework of the semantic fluency task, where individuals were asked to retrieve as many exemplars as they could from a given category (e.g., animals) within a fixed period of time. Responses were more phonologically similar during later stages of retrieval, and greater phonological similarity across responses was associated with greater number of items produced. We formulated a nested set of optimal foraging models to evaluate the combined influence of semantic and phonological information on retrieval likelihood. Model comparisons revealed that a model that combined frequency, semantic, and phonological information locally to make within-category transitions but relied on only frequency as a global cue to make between-category transitions produced the best explanation of the behavioral data.

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