Meaning above (and in) the head: Combinatorial visual morphology from comics and emoji

Neil Cohn*, Tom Foulsham

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Compositionality is a primary feature of language, but graphics can also create combinatorial meaning, like with items above faces (e.g., lightbulbs to mean inspiration). We posit that these “upfixes” (i.e., upwards affixes) involve a productive schema enabling both stored and novel face–upfix dyads. In two experiments, participants viewed either conventional (e.g., lightbulb) or unconventional (e.g., clover-leaves) upfixes with faces which either matched (e.g., lightbulb/smile) or mismatched (e.g., lightbulb/frown). In Experiment 1, matching dyads sponsored higher comprehensibility ratings and faster response times, modulated by conventionality. In Experiment 2, event-related brain potentials (ERPs) revealed conventional upfixes, regardless of matching, evoked larger N250s, indicating perceptual expertise, but mismatching and unconventional dyads elicited larger semantic processing costs (N400) than conventional-matching dyads. Yet mismatches evoked a late negativity, suggesting congruent novel dyads remained construable compared with violations. These results support that combinatorial graphics involve a constrained productive schema, similar to the lexicon of language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1381-1398
Number of pages18
JournalMemory and Cognition
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022


  • Affixation
  • Compositionality
  • Morphology
  • Visual language
  • Evoked Potentials/physiology
  • Language
  • Reaction Time/physiology
  • Semantics
  • Humans
  • Female
  • Male
  • Electroencephalography
  • N400
  • Word
  • Comprehension
  • Semantic Integration
  • Recognition
  • Context
  • Predictability
  • Electrophysiological Evidence
  • Vocabulary
  • Event-related Potentials


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