ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2013, Vol. 45 ›› Issue (4): 391-405.

### Effect of Semantic Decomposability on Understanding of Chinese Three-Character Idioms

MA Lijun;ZHANG Jijia;DU Kai

1. (1 School of Economy and Management, Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, Guangzhou 510006, China) (2 Departmemt of Psychology, Renmin University of China, Beijing 100873, China) (3 Center for Psychological Application, South China Normal University, Guangzhou 510631, China)
• Received:2012-03-29 Published:2013-04-25 Online:2013-04-25
• Contact: ZHANG Jijia

Abstract: Idiomatic expressions are widely used as one of figurative languages when people sensed that idiom contained more than its surface meaning. For a long time, researchers have done a lot of work studying the mechanism of processing idioms, and two models were proposed: noncompositional model and compositional model. Those two models, however, can only explain one aspect of processing idioms. Therefore, hybrid model (Cutting & Bock, 1997) came into being in explaning how people process idioms: top-down process and bottom-up process co-exist. Compositionality was introduced in psycholinguistics by Gibbs and his colleagues (Gibbs, Nayak, & Cutting, 1989), and later developed into the so-called idiom semantic decomposition hypothesis, which made great contribution to generating hybrid model. According to this view, idioms are at least partly decomposable, and speakers have shared intuitions about how the meanings of the parts contribute to the idiomatic meaning. The degree of analyzability determines the access of idioms’ figarative meaning. During recent years, semantic analyzability has become very popular among psycholinguists, and the claims of the idiom semantic decomposition hypothesis are now widely accepted (Libben & Titone, 2008). Some questions remain unsettled, however, including: (1) whether semantic decomposability affects understanding idioms independently; (2) if so, how semantic decomposability affects it; (3) whether semantic decomposition hypothesis is suitable in processing Chinese modifier-noun structure; (4) which model can be applied in accessing Chinese three-character idioms. The present study tried to answer those questions by exploring semantic priming task to investigate how Chinese three-character idioms with verb-object structure and with modifier-noun structure were processed. We intended to reveal the role semantic decomposability played in processing idioms in early (SOA=300ms in Experiment 1) and later (SOA=800ms in Experiment 2) period. The results showed that semantic decomposability affected semantic activation independently. In early period, as to high decomposable idioms with verb-object structure and with modifier-noun structure, we found significant activation in their literal meanings; on the other hand, in later period, as to low decomposable idioms with modifier-noun structure, we found significant accuracy in activating literal and figurative meanings. The results also showed that the degree of semantic decomposability resulted in different effects of semantic priming. In early period, as to low decomposable idioms with verb-object structure, we found significant activation in both literal and figurative meanings, and we found activation in literal meanings when idioms with verb-object structure and with modifier-noun structure were high decomposable. In later period, significant activation in both literal and figurative meanings was found in low decomposable idioms with verb-object structure. But significant activation in figurative meanings was only found in high decomposable idioms with modifier-noun structure. These results supported the notion that semantic decomposability plays a role in processing idioms in early period; while in later period, as to high decomposable idioms with verb-object structure, the simultaneous activation of literal and figuratvie meanings weakens the advantage of semantic priming. So we made conclusions that (1) semantic decomposability independently affects understanding idioms; (2) figurative meanings are activated more easily when idioms are low semantic decomposable; whereas literal meanings tend to be easily activated when idioms are high semantic decomposable; (3) the privilege of activation in literal meaning exists in processing idioms. All those results partly support the Graded Salience Hypothesis and hybrid hypothesis.