May 11th: Yang Xu

Chaining and the growth of word meaning

Yang Xu, University of Toronto

Tuesday, May 11 2021, 16:00-17:00 BST
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Natural language relies on a finite lexicon to express a potentially infinite range of meanings. This tension creates a funnel effect where meanings are compressed through a limited set of words. Prior work suggests that word meanings are structured for efficient compression. I describe recent development that extends this work to investigate the cognitive mechanisms in the dynamic growth of word meaning through time. I first present work that synthesizes cognitive linguistic theories of chaining with classic models of categorization to predict the historical extension of numeral classifiers for emerging referents. I then present evidence that similar models of chaining predict children’s spatial word generalization. Our findings suggest that an exemplar-based model of chaining may underlie the general mechanisms in word meaning growth. I discuss applications of this work to natural language processing and implications for research in lexicon evolution.