Northwestern University

Fri 3:30 PM

Linguistics Colloquium Series: Andy Wedel - Signal evolution within the word

When: Friday, April 19, 2019
3:30 PM - 5:30 PM  

Where: Frances Searle Building, 3-417, 2240 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Talant Abdykairov   847.467.3384

Group: Linguistics Department

Category: Academic


Languages have been shown to optimize their lexicons over time with respect to amount of phonological signal allocated to words: words that are on average less predictable tend to have more segments. But not all segments are equally informative: listeners identify words from the speech stream incrementally, continually updating their lexical search as the phonetic signal unfolds. As a consequence, segments earlier in words contribute more information to lexical access than later segments. As a consequence, languages should not only optimize the total number of segments allocated to different words, but optimize how informative those segments are in disambiguating from existing competitors in the lexicon. Here I'll show data from a range of languages that this is the case: words that are on average less predictable have relatively more informative early segments, while tending to preserve a 'long tail' of more redundant later segments.
Second, I'll review our recent work suggesting that this asymmetry in segment information distribution across the word may influence the evolution of phonological rules which impact lexical identification. In a typologically-balanced sample of 50 languages, we find that phonological rules which neutralize lexical distinctions (e.g., word-final obstruent devoicing in German) are common at word-ends, but very rare at word-beginnings.
Both of these patterns are consistent with the hypothesis that language change is influenced by a tendency for speakers to reduce more redundant phonetic material while preserving more informative material.

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