As Language Evolves, Who Wins Out: Speakers or Listeners?

Read in your language:

Sean Trott in Psyche: Some words are much more frequent than others. For example, in a sample of almost 18 million words from published texts, the word can occurs about 70,000 times, while souse occurs only once. But can doesn’t just occur more frequently – it’s also much more ambiguous. That is, it has many possible meanings. Can sometimes refers to a container for storing food or drink (‘He drinks beer straight from the can’), but it also doubles as a verb about the process of putting things in a container (‘I need to can this food’), and as a modal verb about one’s ability or permission to do something (‘She can open the can’). It even occasionally moonlights as a verb about getting fired (‘Can they can him for stealing that can?’), and as an informal noun for prison (‘Well, it’s better than a year in the can’).

This multiplicity of possible uses raises a question: how do cansouse and other words each end up with the particular numbers of meanings they have? The answer could rest in fundamental, competing forces that shape the evolution of languages.

Remarkably, the relationship between word frequency and word ambiguity goes well beyond can and souse. In 1945, the linguist George Kingsley Zipf noticed that frequent English words are, on average, more ambiguous than less frequent words. This pattern is surprisingly robust across languages – so much so that it is sometimes described as Zipf’s meaning-frequency law. A leading explanation for this phenomenon – first proposed by Zipf himself – begins with the premise that languages are in some sense evolved to make communication more efficient. According to this view, language change is (roughly) analogous to biological evolution: just as biological species are shaped over successive generations by the demands of their environments, languages are constrained by the needs of the people who use them. In particular, languages may evolve to minimise the effort required to convey information.

At first blush, this theory might seem obvious. Presumably, languages would not change in ways that make them unusable – and who wouldn’t prefer a more efficient language over a less efficient one? Yet the picture is complicated by the fact that communication is a two-way street. Communication – whether spoken, signed or written – requires a producer (the person trying to convey a message) and a comprehender (the person trying to understand it). And, critically, what’s efficient for language producers isn’t always what’s most efficient for comprehenders. More here.

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‘Achha’ in Punjabi language

Honorary contributors to DesPardes: Adil Khan, Ajaz Ahmed, Ammar Jafri, Anwar Abbas, Arif Mirza, Aziz Ahmed, Bawar Tawfik, Dr. Razzak Ladha, Dr. Syed M. Ali, G. R. Baloch, Hasham Saddique, Jamil Usman, Jawed Ahmed, Ishaq Saqi, Khalid Sharif, Majid Ahmed, Masroor Ali, Md. Ahmed, Md. Najibullah, Mustafa Jivanjee, Nusrat Jamshed, Shahbaz Ali, Shahid Hamza, Shahid Nayeem, Syed Hamza Gilani, Mushtaq Siddiqui, Syed Hasan Javed, Syed M. Ali, Tahir Sohail

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