LEC talk 3rd February: Jasmeen Kanwal

By Kevin | January 26, 2015

Tuesday 3rd Feb, 11am-12:30, G32, 7 George Square

Jasmeen Kanwal (UCSD)

Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort from a diachronic perspective

“The magnitude of words tends, on the whole, to stand in an inverse (not necessarily proportionate) relationship to the number of occurrences.” This is the Principle of Least Effort (PLE) as stated by George Kingsley Zipf in 1935. This inverse relationship between word length and word frequency (and a closely related inverse relationship between word length and predictability in context) has since been found to hold synchronically for many languages. One explanation for the ubiquity of this pattern is that it results from a pressure on language users to optimise efficiency of communication; by assigning shorter forms to more frequent or predictable meanings, while assigning longer forms to less frequent or predictable meanings, we maximise the chances of successful communication while minimising overall effort (see, e.g., Piantadosi et al. 2011). If communicative pressure indeed plays a role in pushing languages towards alignment with the PLE, then we should expect to observe a diachronic effect: as the frequency or average predictability of a meaning increases with time, the average length of the corresponding form should decrease with time, and vice versa. An ideal testing ground for this hypothesis is provided by synonymous (or near-synonymous) word pairs that differ in length, for example clipped pairs such as ‘info’ and ‘information’. As a meaning becomes more common over time, the relative frequency of the shorter form should increase, and vice versa. I will present the results of a large-scale corpus study–focusing, for the time being, on English–that supports this hypothesis, thus suggesting that communicative efficiency does indeed play some role in driving languages towards greater alignment with the PLE over time.