What Language Disorders Reveal About the Mechanisms of Morphological Processing

Christina Manouilidou*, Michaela Nerantzini, Brianne M. Chiappetta, M. Marsel Mesulam, Cynthia K. Thompson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


We addressed an understudied topic in the literature of language disorders, that is, processing of derivational morphology, a domain which requires integration of semantic and syntactic knowledge. Current psycholinguistic literature suggests that word processing involves morpheme recognition, which occurs immediately upon encountering a complex word. Subsequent processes take place in order to interpret the combination of stem and affix. We investigated the abilities of individuals with agrammatic (PPA-G) and logopenic (PPA-L) variants of primary progressive aphasia (PPA) and individuals with stroke-induced agrammatic aphasia (StrAg) to process pseudowords which violate either the syntactic (word class) rules (*reheavy) or the semantic compatibility (argument structure specifications of the base form) rules (*reswim). To this end, we quantified aspects of word knowledge and explored how the distinct deficits of the populations under investigation affect their performance. Thirty brain-damaged individuals and 10 healthy controls participated in a lexical decision task. We hypothesized that the two agrammatic groups (PPA-G and StrAg) would have difficulties detecting syntactic violations, while no difficulties were expected for PPA-L. Accuracy and Reaction Time (RT) patterns indicated: the PPA-L group made fewer errors but yielded slower RTs compared to the two agrammatic groups which did not differ from one another. Accuracy rates suggest that individuals with PPA-L distinguish *reheavy from *reswim, reflecting access to and differential processing of syntactic vs. semantic violations. In contrast, the two agrammatic groups do not distinguish between *reheavy and *reswim. The lack of difference stems from a particularly impaired performance in detecting syntactic violations, as they were equally unsuccessful at detecting *reheavy and *reswim. Reduced grammatical abilities assessed through language measures are a significant predictor for this performance, suggesting that the “hardware” to process syntactic information is impaired. Therefore, they can only judge violations semantically where both *reheavy and *reswim fail to pass as semantically ill-formed. This finding further suggests that impaired grammatical knowledge can affect word level processing as well. Results are in line with the psycholinguistic literature which postulates the existence of various stages in accessing complex pseudowords, highlighting the contribution of syntactic/grammatical knowledge. Further, it points to the worth of studying impaired language performance for informing normal language processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number701802
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Nov 29 2021


  • agrammatism
  • derivational morphology
  • morphological processing
  • primary progressive aphasia
  • pseudowords
  • stroke-induced aphasia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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