Why did Mary gorp: inferring verb meanings from the semantic context
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Previous research on the acquisition of word meaning has focused on the mapping of pre-existing concepts onto novel word forms. Departing from this tradition, we investigated whether learners can use the semantic context of unfamiliar words to infer some aspects of their meaning after a single exposure. Adult native speakers of English read training sentences, which contained pseudo-verbs and provided coherence-driven semantic constraints on the correct use of those verbs (e.g. Mary gorped because it was sunny outside). Each training sentence was followed by a test sentence, which repeated the pseudo-verb and was followed by an explicit plausibility judgment. Half of the test sentences violated the semantic constraints that were established by the preceding training sentence. The results revealed, as predicted, that participants were sensitive to the semantic violations, which indicates that they performed the expected inference during training. The learned meaning was tentative, however, and did not translate into increased reading times associated with incongruent compared to congruent usage of the novel words. These results suggest that learners are able to use the semantic and pragmatic context of unfamiliar words to infer some aspects of their meaning after a single exposure. As such, they are consistent with the possibility that learning words may involve assembling their meaning from their linguistic context, rather than merely associating word forms with pre-existing concepts.