On language ‘utility’: processing complexity and communicative efficiency



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

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