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Acquisition and cognition 2007

Themes and actions

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Cognitive processes of grammatical gender in French


  Contact person
Fanny MEUNIER

Scientific framework and objectives

Collaborators: E. Spinelli, A. Seigneuric, F.-X. Alario The French language, like many languages of the world organizes all nouns into grammatical gender categories. In French, all nouns are categorized in two classes, masculine (such as soleil “sun”) and feminine (such as lune “moon”). Gender systems are language-specific. For example in English it is restrained to the assignment of animate nouns to gender classes tends to be based on biological gender as revealed in phenomena such as anaphoric pronouns like in “Molly and Thomas played all day. She said he was tireless”. Across languages, animate nouns gender categorization is mostly semantic, as nouns referring to males are generally masculine and nouns referring to females generally feminine, for example le garçon “the+masculine boy” and la fille “the+feminine girl”. In French, only 10.5% of nouns have a grammatical gender that is semantically motivated. For languages such as French, in which inanimate nouns are also classified as having masculine or feminine gender (see also Italian), speakers have to learn the arbitrary assignment of gender by heart. Consequently words with very similar meaning can have different genders. For example, in French, the noun revue ‘magazine, journal’ is feminine, while magazine ‘magazine’ is masculine, and similarly, tasse ‘cup’ is feminine, but bol ‘bowl’ is masculine. It also happens that changing the gender of a word changes its meaning, as for le mémoire “memoir” and la mémoire “memory”, however these cases are very rare. For inanimate nouns, the assignment of a gender category seems not based on any general rule. French gender as in many other languages, is a property described as showing no sign of any systematicity, and generative linguists have often described gender as a lexical property which has to be learned. Two general questions have been addressed regarding gender processing during comprehension: A first issue concerns the syntactic function of gender and explores the gender processing involved in gender agreement. In languages that have grammatical gender, words modifying nouns, such as articles or adjectives are marked depending on the gender of the noun. Most studies have explored this point using primarily priming paradigm to test effects of grammatical congruency or incongruency (e.g. between a noun and an adjective or article). Overall most studies provide evidence for an influence of a gender-marked context on the activation of lexical candidates and reveal that access to grammatical gender is automatically triggered by a grammatical prime marked for gender whereas the task itself does not require such processing, such as in a primed lexical decision task (Bates, Devescovi, Hernandez, and Pizzamiglio, 1996; Colé and Segui, 1994; Holmes & Segui, 2004; Taft & Meunier, 1998; Grosjean, Dommergues, Cornu, Guillelmon, & Besson, 1994; Spinelli & Alario, 2002; see however Spinelli, Meunier & Seigneuric, 2006). The second interest of gender in comprehension is how it is lexically represented and accessed during word recognition. Using gender decision tasks or grammaticality judgments, several studies have highlighted the role of two types of cues to retrieve grammatical gender, i.e. sublexical and lexical cues (Holmes & Segui, 2004; Taft & Meunier, 1998). Sublexical cues derive from the fact that the endings of many nouns in French are associated more often with one gender than the other. For example, all nouns ending in -isme are masculine (e.g., cynisme “cynicism”), whereas all nouns ending in -esse are feminine (e.g., sagesse “wisdom”). Other endings have a strong but not perfect association with one gender, for example domaine “domain” is one of the few masculine words ending in -aine. Some endings are associated with both genders, for example, nouns ending in -ique are feminine about 60% of the time. Lexical cues come from the other words with which the noun co-occurs systematically and which mark gender unambiguously. The most ubiquitous of these are the indefinite articles un masculine and une feminine “a, an”. Other less frequently occurring form classes such as adjectives and pronouns would also play some role. Globally the empirical results show that classification of nouns leads to longer response times when both sublexical and lexical cues are uninformative than when one or both cues are informative about gender.


  Financial support
  • ACI Jeunes Chercheurs
    Mental lexicon organisation : Morphology and Grammatical Gender
    Ministère de la Recherche
    2002-2005
  • Programme Emergence
    Mental lexicon organisation : Morphology and Grammatical Gender
    Région Rhône-Alpes
    2002-2005

  Publications
  • Meunier, F., Seigneuric, A., Spinelli, E., 2008, "The Morpheme Gender Effect: Evidence for Decomposition", Journal of Memory and Language, 58:1, pp. 88-99
  • Meunier, F., Seigneuric, A., Spinelli, E., 2005, "The Morpheme Gender Effect: An Evidence for Decomposition ", proc. of The 27nd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (Cogsci2005), Stresa, Italie, 21-23 juillet
  • Seigneuric, A., Zagar, D., Meunier, F., Spinelli, E., 2007, "The relation between language and cognition in 3- to 9-year-olds: The acquisition of grammatical gender in French", Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 96, pp. 219-246
  • Spinelli, E., Meunier, F., Seigneuric, A., 2006, "Does gender information influence early phases of spoken word recognition?", The Mental Lexicon, 1:2, pp. 277-297
  • Spinelli, E., Meunier, F., Seigneuric, A., 2005, "Does gender information influence early phases of spoken word recognition? ", proc. of The 27nd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (Cogsci2005), Stresa, Italie, 21-23 juillet
  • Taft, M., Meunier, F., 1998, "Lexical representation of gender: a quasi-regular domain", Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 27:1, pp. 23-45
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