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How arbitrary is language?

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Article number20130299
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>19/09/2014
<mark>Journal</mark>Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1651
Number of pages12
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English


It is a long established convention that the relationship between sounds and meanings of words is essentially arbitrary-typically the sound of a word gives no hint of its meaning. However, there are numerous reported instances of systematic sound meaning mappings in language, and this systematicity has been claimed to be important for early language development. In a large-scale corpus analysis of English, we show that sound-meaning mappings are more systematic than would be expected by chance. Furthermore, this systematicity is more pronounced for words involved in the early stages of language acquisition and reduces in later vocabulary development. We propose that the vocabulary is structured to enable systematicity in early language learning to promote language acquisition, while also incorporating arbitrariness for later language in order to facilitate communicative expressivity and efficiency.