WORDS Group, 11/17

The WORDS Group will be meeting on Friday 17th November, at McGill, Dr. Penfield Ave. 1085 (room 117) at 1pm-2.30pm. Tim O’Donnell will present “Productivity and Reuse in Language”:


A much-celebrated aspect of language is the way in which it allows us to express and comprehend an unbounded number of thoughts. This property is made possible because language consists of several combinatorial systems which can be used to productively build novel forms using a large inventory of stored, reusable parts: the lexicon. For any given language, however, there are many more potentially storable units of structure than are actually used in practice — each giving rise to many ways of forming novel expressions. For example, English contains suffixes which are highly productive and generalizable (e.g., -ness; Lady-Gagaesqueness, pine-scentedness) and suffixes which can only be reused in specific words, and cannot be generalized (e.g., -th; truth, width, warmth). How are such differences in generalizability and reusability represented? What are the basic, stored building blocks at each level of linguistic structure? When is productive computation licensed and when is it not? How can the child acquire these systems of knowledge? I will discuss a theoretical framework designed to address these questions. The approach is based on the idea that the problem of productivity and reuse can be solved by optimizing a tradeoff between a pressure to store fewer, more reusable lexical items and a pressure to account for each linguistic expression with as little computation as possible. I will show how this approach addresses a number of problems in English inflectional and derivational morphology, and briefly discuss its applications to other domains of linguistic structure.

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