Monday Sep 9, 3-4:30pm.
Wawona SSM 117
Andrew Wedel, University of Arizona

Title: Lexical competition and the evolution of phoneme inventories

Abstract: All human languages make use of small sets of signal categories (such as the sounds [p] and [b] in English) in combination to compose larger, meaningful categories (such as the English words ‘pat’ and ‘bat’). These perceptually contrastive, yet individually meaningless categories are often called phonemes. As languages change over generations, phonemes can be lost, and new ones gained, but little is known about what constrains change in the inventory of phonemes for a given language. The venerable Functional Load hypothesis states that phonemes are less likely to be lost, the more ‘work’ they do in carrying linguistic information in usage (e.g., Trubetzkoy 1939). This hypothesis has been investigated many times over the last century, but only recently have advances in computation, statistical models and availability of data made it possible to rigorously test it. In the first part of this talk, I present results from a statistical analysis of historical phoneme losses and gains within a multi-language dataset which strongly support the functional load hypothesis, and specifically suggest that the existance of lexical competitors (e.g., ‘pat’ vs ‘bat’) significantly influences change in phoneme inventories.  But how can relationships between individual words influence the evolution of the abstract system of phonemes shared among all words of a language? In the second part of the talk, I review a general model for a causal link between lexical competition in individual communication events and abstract sound change over generations, and show new data from English which support this model.

BIO: Andrew Wedel is an Associate Professor in the department of Linguistics at University of Arizona.   He has two PhD’s.   He received his first PhD in molecular biology from UC Berkeley in 1994, where he studied in bacterial signaling pathways.   He was a postdoc studying RNA enzyme evolution at Max Planck Institute in Germany.  He received his second PhD in linguistics from UC Santa Cruz in 2004, where he studied phonology as a dynamical system.  He has been a professor at University of Arizona since 2004. He studies hypotheses deriving from the model of language as a dynamical system, making use of computational simulation, corpus studies and laboratory studies.

See the fall 2013 schedule.