An edited extract from Learning Language from Language (forthcoming).
What's the first word you think of when you hear ... ? The answer to this question is a window into a person's mental lexicon. It is quite revealing to have many windows into an individual's mental lexicon, and into a group's. One group that was studied is British undergraduates who predate computer usage. Another group is foreign language learners.
One way of finding out what particular sense groups of people first associate with words is to ask them, and when you ask a lot of them, patterns in the data emerge and conclusions can be drawn. For example, the first word British undergraduates thought of when they heard company, was friend and related words such as good, crowd, keep and people. Their second most frequent word association was limited and related words such as director, firm, business and accounts. A third cluster of word associations may be assumed from female, girls, lady, pleasure. This is what the first graph below shows.
When you look at all the graphs, there is an obvious pattern: there are a few words which almost everybody associated with the stimulus word. And this is true of the thousands of words that the researchers used.
You shall know a word by the
Open Paul Meara's paper here:
Word Associations in a Foreign Language (1983).
The responses fall into three categories.
The two words, i.e., the stimulus and the response, are from the same semantic set and are the same part of speech, e.g., synonyms, antonyms.
The two words can occur near each other in speaking or writing and can be any part of speech, e.g., adjective + noun collocation, compound noun.
The words have sounds in common. They might rhyme, start with the same letter, phoneme or syllable, etc. This is particularly common among children and non-native speakers.
What's the first word you think of when you hear 'company'?
What's the first word you think of when you hear 'blood'?
What's the first word you think of when you hear 'relationship'?