Linguistics Department

Colloquium - Kyle Mahowald (Stanford University)

Cognitive and communicative pressures in language

Mon, February 17, 2020 | RLP 1.302B

3:00 PM - 5:00 PM

There is enormous diversity in the world’s languages, both within and across language families. But all languages must be cognitively tractable for processing and efficient for their speakers’ communicative needs. Using ideas from computer science about efficient communication and ideas from psycholinguistics about constraints on human language processing, we can generate hypotheses about efficient language structure. Using large amounts of multilingual linguistic data, advanced computational techniques, and psycholinguistic behavioral experiments, we can test these hypotheses and thereby explain features observed across languages. In the first part of my talk, 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. I also show that, across 97 languages, phonotactically probable words are more likely to also have high token frequency. In the second part, applying ideas about cognitive efficiency to syntax, I show that, across 37 world languages, the linear distance between dependent words is minimized. I will conclude with a discussion of best practices for methods in psycholinguistics and directions for future research (touching on social aspects of communication and the role of artificial neural networks in psycholinguistic research).

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  • Department of Linguistics

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