Please join us for the NLP Seminar on Monday 2/13 at 3:30pm in 202 South Hall. All are welcome!
Speaker: Stephan Meylan (UC Berkeley)
Title: Word forms are optimized for efficient communication
The inverse relationship between word length and use frequency, first identified by G.K. Zipf in 1935, is a classic empirical law that holds across a wide range of human languages. We demonstrate that length is one aspect of a much more general property of words: how distinctive they are with respect to other words in a language. Distinctiveness plays a critical role in recognizing words in fluent speech, in that it reflects the strength of potential competitors when selecting the best candidate for an ambiguous signal. Phonological information content, a measure of a word’s probability under a statistical model of a language’s sound or character sequences, concisely captures distinctiveness. Examining large-scale corpora from 13 languages, we find that distinctiveness significantly outperforms word length as a predictor of frequency. This finding provides evidence that listeners’ processing constraints shape fine-grained aspects of word forms across languages.