The regularity of polysemy patterns in the mind: Computational and experimental data

Alizee Lombard, Ana Ulicheva, Maria Korochkina, Kathy Rastle

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Linguists have often observed that the sense extensions in polysemous words follow patterns. Yet, these patterns have rarely been quantified, and it is unknown whether language users are sensitive to them. We developed four regularity metrics, focusing in this initial study on metaphor patterns that apply to nouns. We further tested adult English speakers’ capacity to understand new senses in an acceptability judgement task. We compared novel senses that followed a metaphor pattern against novel senses that did not respect any pattern. Our results showed that novel senses were judged as more acceptable when they were part of a polysemy pattern as opposed to when they were not. We also assessed whether acceptability judgements were influenced by the degree of regularity of the pattern that they follow. The results confirmed the psychological validity of degree of regularity as a measure: the more regular the polysemy pattern, the more acceptable the new sense following that pattern. Regularity metrics that captured the consistency with which a pattern is instantiated were more successful in predicting acceptability ratings than regularity metrics that captured the number of times a pattern is instantiated. These results motivate future psycholinguistic studies investigating the influence of regularity on learning, processing, and storage of polysemes in a more nuanced way than has been possible previously.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-24
JournalGlossa Psycholinguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2024


  • polysemy
  • regularity
  • experimental semantics
  • computational linguistics
  • WordNet

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