25 August 2014

The arbitrariness of words

(via phys.org) A statistical analysis of English terms, recently published in Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (free preprint on the corresponding author's site), finds systematic relations between sound and meaning, refuting a pure arbitrariness of the linguistic sign.

Of course, such relations have been sought for —and found— ever since Plato (last year, I reviewed on this blog Genette's Mimologics, a great exploration of the topic.) The novelty is the quantitative aspect of the analysis: the authors define phonetic and semantic distances between pairs of terms and then measure the correlation of these distances, which is higher than expected by pure chance. Unfortunately, they give no intuitive illustration for the amplitude of the effect, expressed as an \(r\)-factor. So, finally, how systematic is the English language?

Another interesting result is that more systematic words are acquired earlier. The authors speculate that systematicity helps language development in its early stages but might hinder it later, when (the vocabulary being larger) it can lead to confusion.

No comments:

Post a Comment