Alternative Solutions to a Language Design Problem: The Role of Adjectives and Gender Marking in Efficient Communication

Topics in Cognitive Science 10 (1):209-224 (2018)
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Abstract

A central goal of typological research is to characterize linguistic features in terms of both their functional role and their fit to social and cognitive systems. One long-standing puzzle concerns why certain languages employ grammatical gender. In an information theoretic analysis of German noun classification, Dye, Milin, Futrell, and Ramscar enumerated a number of important processing advantages gender confers. Yet this raises a further puzzle: If gender systems are so beneficial to processing, what does this mean for languages that make do without them? Here, we compare the communicative function of gender marking in German to that of prenominal adjectives in English, finding that despite their differences, both systems act to efficiently smooth information over discourse, making nouns more equally predictable in context. We examine why evolutionary pressures may favor one system over another and discuss the implications for compositional accounts of meaning and Gricean principles of communication.

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Melody Dye
Stanford University

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