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"Languages less arbitrary than long assumed", with Morten Christiansen

Processing, Shape

Date: 1 October 2015 

It is a cornerstone of theoretical linguistics: the principle of arbitrariness, according to which the form of a word doesn't tell you anything about its meaning. Yet evidence is accumulating that natural languages do in fact feature several non-arbitrary ways to link form and meaning, and these are more prevalent than assumed. A new review in Trends in Cognitive Sciences presents a comprehensive case for supplementing the cherished principle of arbitrariness with other types of associations between form and meaning.

[...] Research by co-authors Padraic Monaghan and Morten Christiansen has shown that subtle patterns in the sounds of words can help speakers to distinguish nouns from verbs in Japanese, English, Dutch and French. For instance, verbs in English tend to be somewhat shorter on average than nouns. Such subtle differences can help people to learn the grammatical categories of their language.


  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University