Saturday, September 25, 2004

Least effort and the origins of scaling in human language 

Least effort and the origins of scaling in human language
"Many authors have pointed out that tradeoffs of utility concerning hearer and speaker needs to appear at many levels. As for the phonological level, speakers want to minimize articulatory effort and hence encourage brevity and phonological reduction. Hearers want to minimize the effort of understanding and hence desire explicitness and clarity (3, 10). Regarding the lexical level (10, 11), the effort for the hearer has to do with determining what the word actually means. The higher the ambiguity (i.e., the number of meanings) of a word, the higher the effort for the hearer. Besides, the speaker will tend to choose the most frequent words. The availability of a word is positively correlated with its frequency. The phenomenon known as the word-frequency effect (12) supports it. The most frequent words tend to be the most ambiguous ones (13). Thereafter, the speaker tends to choose the most ambiguous words, which is opposed to the least effort for the hearer. Zipf referred to the lexical tradeoff as the principle of least effort. He pointed out that it could explain the pattern of word frequencies, but he did not give a rigorous proof of its validity (11). Word frequencies obey Zipf's law. If the words of a sample text are ordered by decreasing frequency, the frequency of the kth word, P(k), is given by P(k) k−α, with α ≈ 1 (11). This pattern is robust and widespread (14)."


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