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Processing of Arabic Diacritical Marks: Phonological-Syntactic Disambiguation of Homographic Verbs and Visual Crowding Effects

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JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance
DatePublished - 2015
Issue number2
Number of pages13
Pages (from-to)494-507
Original languageEnglish


Diacritics convey vowel sounds in Arabic, allowing accurate word pronunciation. Mostly, modern Arabic is printed non-diacritised. Otherwise, diacritics appear either only on homographic words when not disambiguated by surrounding text or on all words as in religious or educational texts. In an eye tracking experiment we examined sentence processing in the absence of diacritics, and when diacritics were presented in either modes. Heterophonic-homographic target verbs that have different pronunciations in active and passive (e.g., برض /daraba/, hit; برض /doriba/, was hit) were embedded in temporarily ambiguous sentences where in the absence of diacritics, readers cannot be certain whether the verb was active or passive. Passive sentences were disambiguated by an extra word (e.g., ديب /bijad/, by the hand of). Our results show that readers processed the disambiguating diacritics when present only on the homographic verb. When disambiguating diacritics were absent, Arabic readers followed their parsing preference for active verb analysis, and garden path effects were observed. When reading fully diacritised sentences, readers incurred only a small cost, likely due to increased visual crowding, but did not extensively process the (mostly superfluous) diacritics, thus resulting in a lack of benefit from the disambiguating diacritics on the passive verb.

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