The role of morphological structure in word recognition raises issues about the nature and structure of the language system. One major issue is whether morphological factors provide an independent principle for lexical organization and processing, or whether morphological effects can be reduced to the joint contribution of form and meaning. The independence of form, meaning, and morphological structure can be directly investigated using derivationally complex words, because derived words can share form but need not share meaning (e.g., archer-arch). We used an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging paradigm to investigate priming between pairs of words that potentially shared a stem, where this link was either semantically transparent (e.g., bravely-brave) or opaque (e.g., archer-arch). These morphologically related pairs were contrasted with identity priming (e.g., mist-mist) and priming for pairs of words that shared only form (e.g., scandal-scan) or meaning (e.g., accuse-blame). Morphologically related words produced significantly reduced activation in left frontal regions, whether the pairs were semantically transparent or opaque. The effect was not found for any of the control conditions (identity, form, or meaning). Morphological effects were observed separately from processing form and meaning and we propose that they reflect segmentation of complex derived words, a process triggered by surface morphological structure of complex words.

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