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Beth Hume

Beth Hume of the Ohio State University will speak at the UCSD Linguistics Department Colloquium on November 23, 2009, at 2:00 pm in AP&M 4301.

Nonmonotonic effects of frequency: Implications for the role of information in language

It is well established that the frequency with which a linguistic item occurs influences how it is perceived, processed and produced. This talk is concerned with an interesting observation regarding the influence of frequency on phonological variability: elements occurring with extreme values of frequency tend to be less stable and hence more variable than those with values closer to the mean. In this talk, I suggest that insights from Information Theory (Shannon & Weaver 1949) can help elucidate such nonmonotonic effects of frequency. IT is concerned with determining mathematically how much information is needed to convey a message: communication systems that maximize the amount of information being sent or received are the most efficient.

Along these lines it is proposed that elements prone to variability contribute minimally to the total information needed to successfully transmit a message in a given system. As such, they are less crucial for the meaningful transmission of a given message than elements that require more information. Thus, the message’s meaning does not depend on their accurate transmission. Interestingly, it is both elements that occur with very high frequency as well as those with very low frequency that contribute minimally to the meaning of a message. Similar arguments can be made for elements with very complex or very simple articulations, or with very low (or high, as will be shown) values of perceptual distinctiveness.