Back to listing

CoEDL Seminar: Saussure Revisited: Balancing Arbitrariness & Systematicity in Vocabulary Structure, Morten Christiansen, 11 Jan

Australian National University, Learning

Date: 4 January 2017

Seminar: Saussure Revisited: Balancing Arbitrariness and Systematicity in Vocabulary Structure

Speaker: Morten H. Christiansen, Cornell University, Aarhus University, and Haskins Labs

When: Wednesday 11 January, 3.30-5.00pm

Where: Engma Room (5019), HC Coombs Building, ANU


Research on sound symbolism has revealed that a considerable amount of systematicity exists in the mapping between a word's phonological form and its meaning  -- but just how systematic is language? In this talk, I first discuss results from analyses of data from nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, indicating that across unrelated languages from different continents, some sounds are used more often than expected by chance to refer to certain concepts and ideas. Additional analyses of English suggest that language incorporates a significant amount of systematicity in form-meaning correspondences across the vocabulary. This systematicity is more pronounced for words involved in the early stages of language acquisition and reduces in later vocabulary development. I then consider further corpus analyses suggesting that additional systematicity can be found at level of lexical categories, revealing the sound of syntax. Results from human experimentation corroborate the corpus analyses, pointing to a division of labor between arbitrariness and systematicity in the structure of the vocabulary. I conclude that the vocabulary is structured to enable systematicity for early acquired words to promote language learning, whilst also incorporating arbitrariness for later acquired words in order to facilitate communicative expressivity and processing efficiency.

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