The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Cohen-Priva to speak at Harvard

Uriel Cohen-Priva (Brown U) will be speaking this week at Harvard, in the Language Universals and Linguistic Diversity Colloquium series.

Speaker: Uriel Cohen Priva (Brown University)
Title: Providing universal explanations for language-specific change
Date: Thurs, November 29th 3:30-5pm
Location: Boylston 105

American English often deletes /t/ word-finally, and taps /t/ in intervocalic contexts. Other varieties of English debuccalize and spirantize /t/ in similar contexts. This pattern is not unique to English. Romance languages tend to debuccalize and delete /s/, and varieties of Arabic front, voice and debuccalize /q/. What makes varieties of English repeatedly reduce the articulatory effort of pronouncing /t/ but not /s/? Is there a systematic way to predict which language would prefer to reduce which sound?

I present a new model, MULE, that traces the reasons that lead some languages to preserve sounds that other languages reduce. I show that these phenomena emerge from the balance between two functional forces: information utility and effort avoidance. Information utility is the amount of information that speakers expect a sound would provide — how useful the sound is from an information-theoretic perspective. Therefore, high information utility leads to the preservation of articulatory effort. Effort avoidance is the attempt to reduce articulatory effort, as follows from Zipf’s principle of least effort. In MULE, a sound that provides an insufficient amount of information utility with respect to the articulatory effort it requires is a likely target for an effort-reducing change.

I show theoretically and experimentally how MULE can explain language-specific tendencies to reduce different sounds. Additionally, I demonstrate how the same principles predict language-specific distributional facts, such as a cross-linguistic preference to use highly informative sounds in stressed syllables.