In psycholinguistics, a lemma (plural lemmas or lemmata) is an abstract conceptual form of a word that has been mentally selected for utterance in the early stages of speech production. A lemma represents a specific meaning but does not have any specific sounds that are attached to it.
When we produce a word, we are essentially turning our thoughts into sounds, a process known as lexicalisation. In many psycholinguistic models this is considered to be at least a two-stage process. The first stage deals with semantics and syntactics; the result of the first stage is an abstract notion of a word that represents a meaning and contains information about how the word can be used in a sentence. It does not, however, contain information about how the word is pronounced. The second stage deals with the phonology of the word; it attaches information about the sounds that will have to be uttered. The result of the first stage is the lemma in this model; the result of the second stage is referred to as the lexeme.
This two-staged model is the most widely supported theory of speech production in psycholinguistics, although it has been challenged. For example, there is some evidence to indicate that the grammatical gender of a noun is retrieved from the word's phonological form (the lexeme) rather than from the lemma. This can be explained by models that do not assume a distinct level between the semantic and the phonological stages (and so lack a lemma representation).
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- Starreveld, P. A.; La Heij, W. (2004). "Phonological facilitation of grammatical gender retrieval". Language and Cognitive Processes 19 (6): 677–711.