Functional Load and the Lexicon: Evidence that Syntactic Category and Frequency Relationships in Minimal Lemma Pairs Predict the Loss of Phoneme contrasts in Language Change

Andrew Wedel, Scott Jackson, Abby Kaplan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

36 Scopus citations

Abstract

All languages use individually meaningless, contrastive categories in combination to create distinct words. Despite their central role in communication, these "phoneme" contrasts can be lost over the course of language change. The century-old functional load hypothesis proposes that loss of a phoneme contrast will be inhibited in relation to the work that it does in distinguishing words. In a previous work we showed for the first time that a simple measure of functional load does significantly predict patterns of contrast loss within a diverse set of languages: the more minimal word pairs that a phoneme contrast distinguishes, the less likely those phonemes are to have merged over the course of language change. Here, we examine several lexical properties that are predicted to influence the uncertainty between word pairs in usage. We present evidence that (a) the lemma rather than surface-form count of minimal pairs is more predictive of merger; (b) the count of minimal lemma pairs that share a syntactic category is a stronger predictor of merger than the count of those with divergent syntactic categories, and (c) that the count of minimal lemma pairs with members of similar frequency is a stronger predictor of merger than that of those with more divergent frequencies. These findings support the broad hypothesis that properties of individual utterances influence long-term language change, and are consistent with findings suggesting that phonetic cues are modulated in response to lexical uncertainty within utterances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)395-417
Number of pages23
JournalLanguage and speech
Volume56
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Sep 1 2013

Keywords

  • Functional load
  • corpus
  • entropy
  • frequency
  • minimal pair
  • phoneme

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing

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