Weaving an ambiguous lexicon

Abstract : Modern cognitive science of language concerns itself with (at least) two fundamental questions: how do humans learn language? —the learning problem —and why do the world’s languages exhibit some properties and not others? —the typology problem. In this dissertation, I attempt to link these two questions by looking at the lexicon, the set of word-forms and their associated meanings, and ask why do lexicons look the way they are? And can the properties exhibited by the lexicon be (in part) explained by the way children learn their language? One striking observation is that the set of words in a given language is highly ambiguous and confusable. Words may have multiple senses (e.g., homonymy, polysemy) and are represented by an arrangement of a finite set of sounds that potentially increase their confusability (e.g., minimal pairs). Lexicons bearing such properties present a problem for children learning their language who seem to have difficulty learning similar sounding words and resist learning words having multiple meanings. Using lexical models and experimental methods in toddlers and adults, I present quantitative evidence that lexicons are, indeed, more confusable than what would be expected by chance alone. I then present empirical evidence suggesting that toddlers have the tools to bypass these problems given that ambiguous or confusable words are constrained to appear in distinct context. Finally, I submit that the study of ambiguous words reveal factors that were currently missing from current accounts of word learning. Taken together this research suggests that ambiguous and confusable words, while present in the language, may be restricted in their distribution in the lexicon and that these restrictions reflect (in part) how children learn languages.
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Isabelle Dautriche. Weaving an ambiguous lexicon. Linguistics. Université Sorbonne Paris Cité, 2015. English. ⟨NNT : 2015USPCB112⟩. ⟨tel-01541510⟩

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