Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Accidental what now?

A little while ago, my friend Frank asked me what I thought the coolest thing in linguistics was. Another friend, Pedro, suggested accidental gaps. At the time I dismissed them as pedestrian. I mean really, so languages have extra words lying around. Big deal. But accidental gaps have gotten under my skin. Now I'm starting to think they are a big deal.

Here's why.

It's pretty clear that synonymy is rare in human language. That means people don't like to have two words that mean the same thing. Obviously, synonymy avoidance puts pressure on the speaker to have a lot of different, distinct words. Especially if you have to develop a specialized vocabulary and make fine-grained distinctions, like artists do with colors.

Given this pressure, accidental gaps seem like an anomaly. We have a desperate need for words to distinguish actions, events, things, etc. And yet here are perfectly good words like wurp and troot going unused.

Oddly enough, we think nothing of having two words that are pronounced exactly the same. In fact, homonymy seems pretty rampant. So we have words like read and reed or the two meanings of mouse, etc. We're doubling up on many words and letting others go unused.

So now I'm thinking, "Yeah accidental gaps are weird!"

There are probably a number of reasons why language is this way. It may be simply a result of evolution. It's pretty common for evolved systems to be poorly designed since natural selection is restricted to the history of the organism. It can only produce variation of what has come before; it can't redesign from scratch. Another possibility is that the two tendencies, synonymy avoidance and homonymy are design features that address two different usage pressures: production and perception.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad I rethought accidental gaps


boredoom said...

But aren't the gaps useful? If every possible combination of syllables was a word, you'd have to listen very carefully to what's said, and spell very accurately, or you're gonna get troot when you're asking for trout.

The gaps increase the redundancy of communication, and you need a bit of that.

liberal elite said...

I think that is the point of the computer science abstract I linked to. From a perception point of view gaps are good.

But if trout/troot is a problem what about crane/crane? Are you going to get a bird or a machine. I think the simple answer to both is that context helps disambiguate.

I'm going to try to quantify how many gaps there are in English. That might be interesting.

boredoom said...

Yeah, the notion that gaps serve a purpose doesn't refute the notion that languages evolve in a random or at least not entirely purposeful way.

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