The Psycholinguistic Status of Lone Other-Language Items: Nonce or Not?

Hispanic Linguistics Symposium (2019)

The sociolinguistic study of language-mixing has focused largely on delimiting codeswitching proper from other instances of contact-induced language-mixing (e.g. borrowing)1. A particularly contentious candidate has been single words of one language inserted into the speech of another: lone other-language items (LOLIs). The attempt to classify LOLIs as codeswitches or other language contact phenomena has sparked a decades-long debate. One prominent hypothesis, the Nonce Borrowing Hypothesis2, argues that when LOLIs are morphosyntactically integrated into the surrounding language, they constitute nonce borrowings, which are structurally identical to established borrowings. Under this view, nonce borrowings differ qualitatively from multi-word codeswitches (MWCSs), which juxtapose two morphosyntactically distinct stretches of speech. Others argue that LOLIs and codeswitches are not qualitatively but rather quantitatively different, driven instead by aspects of frequency3 and salience4. The goal of the present study is to examine the online processing of LOLIs, MWCS, and established borrowings to test the role of morphosyntactic integration and to determine how different—or similar—they may be.

Sixty highly proficient early Spanish-English bilinguals were recruited from the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, all self-identifying as avid codeswitchers. Pupillometry was selected as the method of data collection because changes in pupil size have been associated with real-time changes in cognitive load5, making it an ideal tool to disambiguate these instances of language-mixing. Participants listened to sentences containing noun-adjective phrases in four conditions: (1) unilingual Spanish, 2) Spanish with an English LOLI as the target noun, 3) Spanish with an established English borrowing as the target noun, and 4) Spanish with an English MWCS consisting of both the noun and adjective. Sentences were recorded by a Spanish-English bilingual Puerto Rican speaker. Pupil size was recorded at a rate of 1000 Hz, time-locked to the onset of the target noun-adjective pair and corrected to a neutral pre-target baseline6. Singe larger pupil sizes are indicative of greater cognitive load, a larger pupillary response was predicted for MWCS compared to established borrowings. If LOLIs are treated as nonce borrowings, the pupillary response was predicted to pattern like established borrowings and unlike MWCS.

Generalized additive mixed-models were used to compare the pupillary response across conditions with significance determined by difference smooths8. Unilingual targets elicited the smallest pupillary response, with LOLIs, MWCSs, and established loanwords all showing significantly larger responses. Importantly, LOLIs did not pattern like established loanwords, which showed the largest pupillary response, but instead were more like (though still different from) MWCSs. Established loanwords seem to stand out the most, perhaps due to their relative salience when presented alongside unilingual ‘standard’ Spanish. These results suggest that, with respect to the comprehender, both LOLIs and established loanwords differentiate themselves from unilingual speech and each other, implying that morphosyntactic integration alone is not the defining characteristic of nonce borrowings. Rather, a gradient emerges across the four conditions, perhaps driven by aspects of salience and surprisal. In summary, the present study argues against a qualitative distinction between LOLIs, MWCS, and established loanwords.


  1. Poplack, S. (2018). Borrowing: Loanwords in the Speech Community and in the Grammar. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  2. Poplack, S., Sankoff, M., & Miller, C. (1988). The social correlates and linguistic processes of lexical borrowing and assimilation. Linguistics, 26, 47-104.Stammers & Deuchar, 2012
  3. Backus, A. (2013). A usage-based approach to borrowability. In E. Zenner & G. Kristiansen (Eds.) New perspectives on lexical borrowing (pp. 19-39).
  4. Zekveld, A. A., & Kramer, S. E. (2014). Cognitive processing load across a wide range of listening conditions: Insights from pupillometry. Psychophysiology, 51(3), 277-284.
  5. Kuchinsky, S. E., Ahlstrom, J. B., Vaden Jr., K. I., Cute, S. L., Humes, L. E., Dubno, J. R., & Eckert, M. A. (2013). Pupil size varies with word listening and response selection difficulty in older adults with hearing loss. Psychophysiology, 50, 23-34.
  6. Sóskuthy, M. (2017). Generalised Additive Mixed Models for Dynamic Analysis in Linguistics: A Practical Introduction. Retrieved from
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