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12-12-2011 | Article

Linguistic pressure leans toward better-sounding words


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MedWire News: An analysis of English and Navajo languages suggests that phonemes that sound better have a better chance of being used over time.

The study, led by Andrew Martin (RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Saitama, Japan), suggests that words are subjected to "selection pressures" that interact with grammar and play a role in how these words become part of language.

In English, for example, compound words that contain long consonants, even though they are permitted by the rules of English, tend to be avoided.

The biases that develop in the human phonotactic learner, explained Martin, are the result of "structure-blind phonotactic constraints that ignore morphological structure."

In studying the sounds of language, researchers have hypothesized that linguistic differences across generations are due to "mislearning," said Martin.

The changes are thought to be the result of one generation failing to learn the same grammar used by the previous generations.

In his review, which is published in the journal Language, Martin argues that biases in the lexicons of Navajo and English allow violations of phonotactic constraints that hold within morphemes.

English-language speakers are aware that germinates are allowed across morpheme boundaries, but not allowed within morphemes.

"They have also encoded in their grammars the fact that geminates are not as frequent as nongeminate clusters," writes Martin.

When the generalizations are combined in English grammar, there is a greater preference for nongeminate clusters within morphemes, and a mild preference for nongeminate clusters across morpheme boundaries.

Martin argues that in addition to the phonotactic constraints that ignore structure, there is also a lexical bias in learning that contains a "smoothing term" that penalizes high constraint weights.

"The biased lexicons in Navajo and English represent a compromise between the needs of the morphology and the needs of the phonology," he writes.

He notes the long consonants are not allowed within morphemes, but if a long consonant is created by combining two words into a compound word it is permitted.

However, "when English speakers create compounds, they tend to avoid creating compounds like 'bookcase' that contain long consonants, even though these words are permitted by the rules of English," writes Martin in a press release accompanying the study.

One implication of the findings is that word sounds subtly bias the choices people make when creating a word, a form of linguistic natural selection.

Once created within this learning model, the sounds of the word will influence whether it catches on or not, stated Martin.

By MedWire Reporters