The primacy of abstract syllables in Chinese word production

Jenn Yeu Chen, Pádraig G. O'Séaghdha*, Train Min Chen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Citations (Scopus)


Convergent evidence suggests that syllables play a primary and distinctive role in the phonological phase of Mandarin Chinese word production. Specifically, syllables are selected before other phonological components and guide subsyllabic encoding. The proximity of phonological syllables to word representations in Chinese languages ensures that they are also activated automatically by word perception. Therefore, in contrast to Indo-European languages, syllables but not necessarily subsyllabic components such as initial consonants can be perceptually primed in production. We tested this prediction in 2 masked-priming experiments. To isolate relevant phonological activation originating in primes, we used single character masked primes whose corresponding tones and lexical meanings always differed from those of the targets' first morphemes. Related primes potentially activated the atonal first syllables or the first consonants of target words. To strongly engage production-specific processes, we used pictures as prompts for disyllabic target words. Facilitation relative to unrelated controls was observed only in the syllable sharing condition. If anything, sharing of initial consonants had a negative valence, perhaps indicative of competition among similar coactivated words or syllables. These findings corroborate the view that abstract syllables are the first selected, proximate phonological units in Chinese word production, and that phonemic segments play a subordinate role.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)825-836
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2016 May 1


  • Chinese phonology
  • Proximate units
  • Segmental impletion
  • Syllable priming
  • Word production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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