The Cognitive and Social Lives of Words

The Cognitive and Social Lives of Words

The University of Amsterdam's February SMART Lecture was presented by the Centre's Professor of Language Modelling Janet Pierrehumbert.

Professor Pierrehumbert's talk was introduced by the University's Professor of Digital Humanities and director of the Center for the History of Humanities and Sciences, Rens Bod.

SMART (Speech & Language, Music, Art, Reasoning & Thought) is an initiative of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam. The group organizes lectures, meetings and discussions, offline and online, to highlight the important contributions to cognitive science from traditional humanities disciplines.

People learn words from instances of words as they are produced by different speakers and in different contexts. The words they know in turn provide the foundation for generalisations about words, supporting lexical productivity. A large and productive lexical system is a hallmark of the remarkable linguistic capabilities of human beings.

Professor Pierrehumbert discussed The Cognitive and Social Lives of Words, reviewing several projects that shed light on learning of words and word formation patterns.

These projects use a diverse methodology, bringing together data from lab experiments, on-line experiments that resemble computer games, and analysis of large corpora. Results indicate that lexical representations are both phonologically abstract and phonetically detailed. They include socio-indexical information. Statistical patterns matter, but sometimes in surprising ways: more is not always better or more productive. Competition within the lexicon, social factors, and individual differences all play important roles.

Professor Pierrehumbert's current research at the Oxford e-Research Centre focuses on the ways in which the dynamics of language - in acquisition, processing, or historical change - relate to the structure of the lexicon. It combines experiments, statistical analyses of large corpora, and computational simulations of learners and of linguistic communities.