The changing mind

A comparison of word associations gathered in the years 1973–1974 and 2016–2018

Keywords: Estonian, WAT, mental lexicon, psycholinguistics

The paper addresses the changeable vs persistent part of the culturally constructed unconscious – the so-called “dark matter of the mind” (Everett 2016). Two sets of responses given to an identical list of Estonian stimuli in a word association test (WAT) are compared. The first set originates in the time when Estonia was ruled by the Soviet regime and the second (an excerpt from a larger database) in the 21st century during political independence. The aim was to detect which associations tended to survive and which did not. The quantitative results show that two-thirds of the primary associations have retained their position while their strength has weakened. Contrasting pairs like short long, man woman, womanman, boygirl, girl boy, etc. are the most persistent. One-third of the primary associations have moved to a lower position or disappeared. The qualitative changes point to progress in the standard of living, to a change of the ruling ideology (from communism to capitalism), to changes in the implicit values (incl. the rise in openness and dynamism), and to the growing preference for eliciting individual and experience related responses. The latent dominants (recurring responses) were partly similar (e.g. water, sky, big), partly pointing to differences in the emotional tone (the “bright” words such as white and yellow were replaced by those usually associated with darkness (black, night, dream, and bed).

There were also changes in the preferred strategies of eliciting the responses – the ones gathered in the 20th century revealed a preponderance of paradigmatic relations, i.e. strategies relying on abstract semantic relations such as antonymy and co-hyponymy; while syntagmatic relations (such as complementing a compound or evoking a fixed phrase) showed a higher percentage among those gathered in the 21st century. The results were discussed in relation to changes noticed in other languages and in respect of differences in the methodology of carrying out the WAT tests (paper and pen vs internet; administered vs voluntary; controlled vs uncontrolled time of performing).


Ene Vainik (b. 1964), PhD, Institute of the Estonian Language, Senior Researcher (Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn),