Northwestern University

Thu 5:00 PM

Linguistics faculty candidate talk: Kyle Mahowald - Topic: Cognitive and communicative pressures in language

When: Thursday, January 31, 2019
5:00 PM - 7:00 PM  

Where: 2122 Sheridan Road, TGS Commons, Evanston, IL 60201 map it

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

Contact: Irene Sakk   847.491.7020

Group: Linguistics Department

Category: Academic


Cognitive and communicative pressures in language

There is enormous diversity in the world’s languages, both within and across language families. But all languages must cognitively tractable for processing and efficient for their speakers’ communicative needs. Using ideas from computer science about what efficient communication systems look like and ideas from cognitive science about constraints on human language processing, we can generate hypotheses about what efficient languages look like. Using large amounts of multilingual linguistic data, advanced computational techniques, and online behavioral experiments, we can test these hypotheses and thereby explain features observed across languages. In particular, I will focus on the lexicon and explore why languages have the words they do instead of some other set of words. First, consistent with predictions from Shannon’s information theory, languages are optimized such that words that convey less information are a) shorter and b) easier to pronounce. For instance, word shortenings like chimpanzee -> chimp are more likely to occur when the context is predictive. Second, across 97 languages, phonotactically probable words are more likely to also have high token frequency. Third, applying these ideas about cognitive efficiency to syntax, I show that, across 37 languages, the syntactic distances between dependent words are minimized. I will conclude with a discussion of methods and directions for future research.

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