Talk in Tromso, CASTLE Research Institute

Psycholinguistic research on under-researched languages-A case study on the processing of noun derivations in the Bantu language Setswana.

Naledi Kgolo and Sonja Eisenbeiss, University of Essex

Up until recently, psycholinguistic studies tended to rely almost exclusively on participants from societies that are WEIRD, i.e. “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic” (Jaeger and Norcliffe, 2009; Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan, 2010 and responses to this target article). Moreover, the majority of participants in these studies were (i) undergraduate students of research universities in these societies or (ii) children from comparatively wealthy and educated families. However, recently, many psycholinguists, psychologists, and social scientists have tried to make their studies “less weird”. These efforts have given rise to ethical and methodological challenges as psycholinguists who study an under-researched language cannot rely on their usual “tools of the trade”, such as lexical databases or culturally appropriate picture databases with naming norms. In response to this, we have started to put together resources for psycholinguists and linguistic fieldworkers who want to conduct experiments with speakers of under-researched languages or work in situations where they cannot rely on a laboratory with proprietary software, expensive equipment, and an easily accessible pool of participants (

In this talk, we will discuss the opportunities and challenges that arise for these “experimental field linguists” and present a case study on morphological processing in Setswana. Our study contributes to the ongoing debate about the role of morphological structure in language processing. In this debate, some psycholinguists argue that the morphological structure of a complex word like neat-ness plays a role in processing, while others try to reduce any “morphological” effects observed in psycholinguistic studies to effects of the fact that forms like neat and neatnessshare formal and semantic properties (see Feldman, 2000; Gonnerman et al., 2007 for overviews). The majority of these studies have focused on inflected forms in Indo-European languages; and there is comparatively little research on derivation as it is rather limited in the languages that have been studied so far. This is not the case for Setswana, a Bantu language of southern Africa, which has a productive noun-derivation system. We will report results from a series of reaction-time experiments that provide evidence for the role of morphological structure in language processing.


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