Survival of the fittest: Linguistic evolution in practice

December 9, 2011

A new study of how compound word formation is influenced by subtle forms of linguistic pressure demonstrates that words which "sound better" to the speakers of a language have a higher chance of being created, suggesting that, like biological organisms, words are subject to selection pressures that play a role in deciding which words become part of a language over time.

The study, "Grammars leak: Modeling how phonotactic generalizations interact within the ," to be published in the December 2011 issue of the scholarly journal Language, is authored by Andrew Martin, of the Laboratory for at the RIKEN Brain Science Center in Wako, Japan.

are marked by the different restrictions they place on which sounds are permitted to occur in . In English, for example, long consonants are not allowed within single morphemes (units of meaning), but they are permitted in compound words like bookcase, where two identical consonants are located next to each other across the boundary between the two morphemes. Compare the of the /p/ in car pool versus carp pool—the two compound words differ only in the length with which the /p/ is held.

Before now, the rules in English that govern long consonants have been stated simply: they are forbidden within morphemes, but if a long consonant is created by combining two words to form a compound, then it's allowed. "In my paper, however, I present evidence from a corpus of written English that things are not so neat—in fact, 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" Dr. Martin commented. One implication of these findings is that the sounds in a word can subtly bias the choices people make about whether or not to create that word, or use it once created, ultimately influencing which words "catch on" and which die out.

This research also tells us something about how the rules within a language are interrelated. It would be simple to build a computer, for example, that could learn that long consonants are forbidden in one context, and completely acceptable in another context. Humans don't seem to work this way, though—when they learn that something is forbidden in one context, they can't help but think that the same thing doesn't sound very good even in a completely different context. This connectivity must be taken into account when building models of how people learn and store the rules of their .

Explore further: Study: Word sounds contain clues for language learners

More information: A preprint version is available on line at:

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not rated yet Dec 09, 2011
Oddly, the greater the diversity, the less the pressures of selection. It is equivalent to saying:
If you have no preference musically and all sounds were music to you, then there is no pressure selection.

We all know there is extreme pressure selection on sound.
Even musically. Some will forbid all sounds. Pressure is always use for gain of some sort.
not rated yet Dec 09, 2011
What puzzles me is when linguists says of repeated consonants, such as the "p" in "carp pool," that they are "held longer." They're not held longer; they're repeated. Anybody clear up my confusion?
1 / 5 (1) Dec 10, 2011
Here is an attempt to clear up your confusion.

To pronounce /p/ the lips must be closed, then reopen.

The word "pool" starts with closed lips - a lip position custom tailored to sound the long consonant /p/.

The /p/ here ends with the lips reopening in the midst of an ever increasing sound from the rest of the /___ool/.
'P' dissipates into the rest of the sound. You never really know when this 'p' disappears or ends from dissipation into the rest of the sound coming from the word "pool".
This 'p' is "held till only god knows when"

Not so with "carp"
This 'p' actually start from "car...", where lips are open.
Then close. Then reopen, to finish the /p/ -
An abrupt ending with the mouth open. The mouth is open without the burden to complete sounds coming from the rest of a word.

Three lip positions: open, closed, open ("carp") vs. two lip positions ("pool") in pronouncing /p/.

And only one guess to which /p/ is "held" longer.

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