There is broad consensus that the visual word recognition system is sensitive to morphological structure (e.g., “hunter” = “hunt” + “er”). Moreover, it has been assumed that the analysis of morphologically complex words (e.g., “hunter”) occurs only if the meaning of the complex form can be derived from the meanings of its constituents (e.g., “hunt” and “er”). However, recent behavioral work using masked priming has suggested that morphological analysis can occur at an early, orthographic level, with little influence from semantics. The present investigation examined the neurophysiological correlates of masked priming in conditions of a genuine morphological relationship (e.g., “hunter”-“HUNT”), an apparent morphological relationship (“corner”-“CORN”), and no morphological relationship (“brothel”-“BROTH”). Neural priming was indexed by the reduction of the N400 ERP component associated with targets preceded by related primes, as compared to targets preceded by unrelated primes. The mere appearance of morphological structure (“corner”-“CORN”) resulted in robust behavioral and neural priming, whose magnitude was similar to that observed in pairs with genuine morphological relationship and greater than that in the nonmorphological pairs. The results support a purely structural morphemic segmentation procedure operating in the early stages of visual word perception.

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