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Research in neurolinguistics examines how language is organized and processed in the human brain. The findings from neurolinguistic studies on language can inform our understanding of the basic ingredients of language and the operations they undergo. In the domain of the lexicon, a major debate concerns whether and to what extent the morpheme serves as a basic unit of linguistic representation, and in turn whether and under what circumstances the processing of morphologically complex words involves operations that identify, activate, and combine morpheme-level representations during lexical processing. Alternative models positing some role for morphemes argue that complex words are processed via morphological decomposition and composition in the general case (full-decomposition models), or only under certain circumstances (dual-route models), while other models do not posit a role for morphemes (non-morphological models), instead arguing that complex words are related to their constituents not via morphological identity, but either via associations among whole-word representations or via similarity in formal and/or semantic features. Two main approaches to investigating the role of morphemes from a neurolinguistic perspective are neuropsychology, in which complex word processing is typically investigated in cases of brain insult or neurodegenerative disease, and brain imaging, which makes it possible to examine the temporal dynamics and neuroanatomy of complex word processing as it occurs in the brain. Neurolinguistic studies on morphology have examined whether the processing of complex words involves brain mechanisms that rapidly segment the input into potential morpheme constituents, how and under what circumstances morpheme representations are accessed from the lexicon, and how morphemes are combined to form complex morphosyntactic and morpho-semantic representations. Findings from this literature broadly converge in suggesting a role for morphemes in complex word processing, although questions remain regarding the precise time course by which morphemes are activated, the extent to which morpheme access is constrained by semantic or form properties, as well as regarding the brain mechanisms by which morphemes are ultimately combined into complex representations.


Holger Diessel

Throughout the 20th century, structuralist and generative linguists have argued that the study of the language system (langue, competence) must be separated from the study of language use (parole, performance), but this view of language has been called into question by usage-based linguists who have argued that the structure and organization of a speaker’s linguistic knowledge is the product of language use or performance. On this account, language is seen as a dynamic system of fluid categories and flexible constraints that are constantly restructured and reorganized under the pressure of domain-general cognitive processes that are not only involved in the use of language but also in other cognitive phenomena such as vision and (joint) attention. The general goal of usage-based linguistics is to develop a framework for the analysis of the emergence of linguistic structure and meaning. In order to understand the dynamics of the language system, usage-based linguists study how languages evolve, both in history and language acquisition. One aspect that plays an important role in this approach is frequency of occurrence. As frequency strengthens the representation of linguistic elements in memory, it facilitates the activation and processing of words, categories, and constructions, which in turn can have long-lasting effects on the development and organization of the linguistic system. A second aspect that has been very prominent in the usage-based study of grammar concerns the relationship between lexical and structural knowledge. Since abstract representations of linguistic structure are derived from language users’ experience with concrete linguistic tokens, grammatical patterns are generally associated with particular lexical expressions.