Linguistics and English Language

Language evolution seminar

Speaker: Alexey Kochevoy (Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive, Aix-Marseille Université & Institut Jean Nicod, ENS-PSL)

Title: Why do some words have more meanings than others? A neutral model for the meaning-frequency correlation

Abstract: The lexica of natural languages are ambiguous, but the degree of ambiguity is unequal between words. Some words have more meanings than others. However, the exact properties that favor some words over others when acquiring a new meaning are not very well understood. In recent years, several studies suggested that some words gain more meanings than others based on selection for efficient communication, which could explain the correlation between meaning and frequency discovered by G. K. Zipf. In this talk, we will try to assess the role of selection in the meaning-frequency correlation using a neutral model that yields a meaning-frequency correlation without selection pressures. We provide a neutral model where words gain additional meanings by being reused. In this model, words are chosen to be reused at random, independently of their frequency, hence there is no selection mechanism favoring efficient communication. Efficient communication consists in minimizing the speaker's and hearers' cumulative effort. Selection for efficient communication is any mechanism that assigns meanings to words in a way that is geared towards communicative efficiency, for instance attributing more meanings to frequent or short words. We show that statistical regularities related to ambiguity, such as Zipf’s meaning-frequency correlation, can arise in conditions when words are not undergoing such selective pressures.


Seminars are organised by the Centre for Language Evolution

Mar 14 2023 -

Language evolution seminar

2023-03-14: Why do some words have more meanings than others? A neutral model for the meaning-frequency correlation

Room G.16 - Doorway 4, Old Medical School, The University of Edinburgh, Central Campus, Teviot Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2QZ; online via link invitation