Journal article Open Access

Towards a Theory of Communicative Efficiency in Human Languages

Levshina, Natalia

This study develops a probabilistic theory of efficiency in natural language. The first part is theoretical and presents the foundation of this theory: the Principle of Efficiency Communication and the related High-Cost and Low-Cost Heuristics. It argues that language users have a bias towards efficient communication, trying to maximize the benefit-to-cost ratio. According to these principles, highly predictable, accessible, activated, expected, stereotypical, etc. information tends to be expressed by less costly forms, which require less effort, whereas less predictable, accessible, etc. information tends to be expressed by costlier forms. Different examples are provided, and possible diachronic mechanisms are discussed.

In Parts II and III, the author zooms in on two well-known phenomena in languages of the world: causative constructions and differential case marking. The author uses data from her own typological database and other typological sources, as well as evidence from numerous corpora of different languages, and reports the results of an artificial language learning experiment. The convergent evidence demonstrates that the more probable meanings and more probable associations between the syntactic function and the referential properties of an argument lead to less costly forms. Part IV contains corpus-based synchronic and diachronic studies of several English alternations: help + (to) Infinitive, stative verb + (at) home and go (and) Verb, and want to/wanna + Infinitive. The author provides statistical evidence for the hypothesis of correlation between slot-filler predictability and formal length of constructions.

The results of this study are important for functional and cognitive linguistics because they provide a coherent framework for discussing different manifestations of efficiency on all levels of language structure – from phonology to discourse patterns.

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