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WIREs Cogn Sci
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On language ‘utility’: processing complexity and communicative efficiency

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Functionalist typologists have long argued that pressures associated with language usage influence the distribution of grammatical properties across the world's languages. Specifically, grammatical properties may be observed more often across languages because they improve a language's utility or decrease its complexity. While this approach to the study of typology offers the potential of explaining grammatical patterns in terms of general principles rather than domain‐specific constraints, the notions of utility and complexity are more often grounded in intuition than empirical findings. A suitable empirical foundation might be found in the terms of processing preferences: in that case, psycholinguistic measures of complexity are then expected correlate with typological patterns. We summarize half a century of psycholinguistic work on ‘processing complexity’ in an attempt to make this work accessible to a broader audience: What makes something hard to process for comprehenders, and what determines speakers' preferences in production? We also briefly discuss recently emerging approaches that link preferences in production to communicative efficiency. These approaches can be seen as providing well‐defined measures of utility. With these psycholinguistic findings in mind, it is possible to investigate the extent to which language usage is reflected in typological patterns. We close with a summary of paradigms that allow the link between language usage and typology to be studied empirically. WIREs Cogni Sci 2011 2 323–335 DOI: 10.1002/wcs.126

Figure 1.

Illustration of sentences with different dependency lengths. The sentence in the top panel contains mostly local dependencies. The sentence in the bottom panel contains several complex nonlocal dependencies.

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Figure 2.

Illustration of the probability of upcoming words under a probabilistic grammar generating the sentence ‘The banker told about the buy‐back resigned’.

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Figure 3.

Illustration of the relation between word duration and word predictability (and hence information density) predicted by certain accounts of communicative efficiency.71,72,109,116–119 The word ‘mind’ is more predictable (and carries less information) in the right panel compared to the left panel. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 120.)

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Figure 4.

Illustration of the predictions of uniform information density, an account of communicative efficiency, for optional relativizer mentioning in nonsubject‐extracted relative clauses.

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