Liina Pylkkänen1,2*, Kana Okano3
1 Department of Linguistics, New York University, New York, New York, United States of America, 2 Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, New York, United States of America, 3 Department of Psychology, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, United States of America
What kind of mental objects are letters? Research on letter perception has mainly focussed on the visual properties of letters, showing that orthographic representations are abstract and size/shape invariant. But given that letters are, by definition, mappings between symbols and sounds, what is the role of sound in orthographic representation? We present two experiments suggesting that letters are fundamentally sound-based representations. To examine the role of sound in orthographic representation, we took advantage of the multiple scripts of Japanese. We show two types of evidence that if a Japanese word is presented in a script it never appears in, this presentation immediately activates the (“actual”) visual word form of that lexical item. First, equal amounts of masked repetition priming are observed for full repetition and when the prime appears in an atypical script. Second, visual word form frequency affects neuromagnetic measures already at 100–130 ms whether the word is presented in its conventional script or in a script it never otherwise appears in. This suggests that Japanese orthographic codes are not only shape-invariant, but also script invariant. The finding that two characters belonging to different writing systems can activate the same form representation suggests that sound identity is what determines orthographic identity: as long as two symbols express the same sound, our minds represent them as part of the same character/letter.