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The discriminative nature of human communication

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Theodora Alexopoulou.

Information theory has shown that exponential distributions are beneficial to the design of efficient communication systems, because they are both optimal for coding purposes and memoryless. It has recently been shown that family names in two Sinosphere languages are exponentially distributed, and I will show how consistent with this, the empirical distributions of names—and other classes of lexical items—that English speakers and hearers engage with in moment to moment communication are exponential. I will illustrate the detailed workings of the communicative process that this distributional structure supports by presenting a full account of the incremental, discriminative syntactic and semantic properties of personal names. I will further show that the distributional structures supporting this process are universal to the world’s major languages, and that the Zipfian distributions long thought to play a functional role in language are an artifact of the mixing of these empirical distributions. Finally I will describe the implications that the phenomena identified here have for theoretical understandings of human communication and cognition.

This talk is part of the Cambridge Linguistics Forum series.

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