[Colloquium] Cognitive and Communicative Pressures in Language

There is enormous diversity in the world’s languages, both within and across language families. But all languages must be cognitively tractable for processing and efficient for their speakers’  communicative needs. Using ideas from computer science about efficient communication and ideas from psycholinguistics about constraints on human language processing, we can generate hypotheses about efficient language structure. Using large amounts of multilingual linguistic data, advanced computational techniques, and psycholinguistic behavioral experiments, we can test these hypotheses and thereby explain features observed across languages. In the first part of my talk, I will focus on the lexicon and explore why languages have the words they do instead of some other set of words. First, consistent with predictions from Shannon’s information theory, languages are optimized such that words that convey less information are a) shorter and b) easier to pronounce. For instance, word shortenings like chimpanzee -> chimp are more likely to occur when the context is predictive. In the second part, applying these ideas about cognitive efficiency to syntax, I show that, across 37 world languages, the syntactic distances between dependent words are minimized. I will conclude with a discussion of best practices for methods in psycholinguistics and directions for future research (touching on social aspects of communication and the possible application of artificial neural networks to psycholinguistic research).