Janet B Pierrehumbert
Example-Based Learning and the Dynamics of the Lexicon
*Friday, April 15, 2011
Paccar Hall Room 291*
A signature characteristic of human languages is an immense lexicon,
something that is just as remarkable as the recursive formal structures of
generative theory. Literate adult speakers know some 100,000 word types,
including morphologically complex words. English speakers encounter new
words all the time.
This talk discusses the relationship between word learning in individuals
and the dynamics of the lexicon at the level of the linguistic community. I
develop the analogy between word types and biological species, taking
imitative behavior in human populations as the mechanism by which word types
replicate themselves over time. Using Usenet discussion communities as model
systems, I develop the concept of a word niche in terms of the dissemination
of a word with regard to people and to topics. It is already known that word
frequency is a predictor of word fate at historical time scales (with low
frequency words being more likely to be regularized by analogy or replaced).
Controlling for frequency, I show that the relative extent of the word niche
is a much more powerful predictor of word fate at short time scales. The
presentation concludes with connections to recent typological results on
population size and language complexity.
Reception to follow in same room.
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