Linguistic Assessment Criteria for Explaining Language Change: A Case Study on Syncretism in German Definite Articles

Monday, October 15, 2012 - 14:00 - 15:30
Remi van Trijp (Sony Computer Science Laboratory Paris)

The German definite article paradigm, which is notorious for its case syncretism, is widely considered to be the accidental by-product of diachronic changes. In this presentation, I argue instead that the evolution of the paradigm has been motivated by the needs and constraints of language usage. This hypothesis is supported by experiments that compare the current paradigm to its Old High German ancestor (OHG; 900-1100 AD) in terms of linguistic assessment criteria such as cue reliability, processing efficiency and ease of articulation. Such a comparison has been made possible by ‘bringing back alive’ the OHG-system through a computational reconstruction in the form of a processing model. The experiments demonstrate that syncretism has made the NHG-system more efficient for processing, pronunciation and perception than its historical predecessor, without however harming the language’s strength at disambiguating utterances.

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