ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2024, Vol. 56 ›› Issue (5): 531-541.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2024.00531

• Reports of Empirical Studies •     Next Articles

How semantic prosody is acquired in novel word learning: Evidence from the “Double-Date Tree” Effect

WU Shiyu(), LI Zan   

  1. School of Foreign Languages, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai 200240, China
  • Published:2024-05-25 Online:2024-03-06
  • Contact: WU Shiyu


Generally, a word’s meaning consists of at least two components. The first is denotative meaning, representing the definitional meaning found in dictionaries and serving as the word’s fundamental meaning. The second component involves semantics that a word “absorbs” from its linguistic context, not constrained by definitions; this is known as semantic prosody, described as a consistent aura of meaning with which a form is imbued by its collocates. While theories and empirical studies have shed light on mechanisms supporting the acquisition of the first word meaning component, the acquisition of the connotative meaning engendered by semantic prosody has been overlooked. It remains unclear whether readers can unconsciously acquire the semantic prosody (or emotional connotations) of a novel word after encountering it consistently in a context with a strong emotional polarity.
Against this backdrop, we conducted a word learning experiment, manipulating context emotionality (negative versus neutral versus positive) and context variability (same-repeated versus varied contexts) as crucial contextual variables. This aimed to address two understudied questions in vocabulary acquisition: (1) Does transfer of affect to a word from its linguistic context take place through reading exposures, facilitating the acquisition of semantic prosody for the word? If so, is such transfer influenced by context variability? (2) Does the acquired semantic prosody for words affect the acquisition of word forms and meanings, and is this acquisition modulated by context variability? This experiment involved two sessions: a reading-and-learning phase and a testing phase. During the reading-and-learning session, participants read emotionally charged passages, simultaneously learning embedded target words. The testing session included an immediate posttest, incorporating four vocabulary tests—valence rating, orthographic choice, definition matching, and definition generation. A total of 196 Chinese speakers participated in the experiment.
Mixed-effects models were utilized to analyze data from the valence rating task and the other three vocabulary knowledge tests. The findings revealed that, within the same-repeated context, manipulating context emotionality (positive versus neutral versus negative) significantly influenced valence ratings, showing significantly higher ratings in the positive condition compared to neutral and negative conditions. Conversely, in the varied context, no significant differences in valence ratings were observed. This result supports the hypothesis of the “Double-Date Tree” effect, emphasizing the effect of repetitive texts compared to multiple texts. However, in the varied context, valence ratings played a role in influencing participants’ performances in the vocabulary tests, leading to better outcomes as valence ratings increased. In the same-repeated context, valence ratings had minimal effect on accuracy in the orthographic choice test and the definition prompting test.
We posit that the effective mechanism for learning the semantic-prosody-engendered connotations of words involves the transfer of affect from their collocations. However, this transfer seems to be contingent on context variability, occurring only in the same-repeated context and not in the varied context. Furthermore, we illustrate that the emotionality of context influences the quality of both orthographic and semantic word learning, with words being better learned in positive contexts as opposed to negative or neutral ones.

Key words: context emotionality, semantic prosody, vocabulary, context variability