Quantifying Cognitive Factors in Lexical Decline

David Francis, Ella Rabinovich, Samir Farhan, David Mortensen, Suzanne Stevenson

Abstract


We adopt an evolutionary view on language change in which cognitive factors (in addition to social ones) affect the fitness of words and their success in the linguistic ecosystem. Specifically, we propose a variety of psycholinguistic factors --- semantic, distributional, and phonological --- that we hypothesize are predictive of lexical decline, in which words greatly decrease in frequency over time. Using historical data across three languages (English, French, and German), we find that most of our proposed factors show a significant difference in the expected direction between each curated set of declining words and their matched stable words.  Moreover, logistic regression analyses show that semantic and distributional factors are significant in predicting declining words. Further diachronic analysis reveals that declining words tend to decrease in the diversity of their lexical contexts over time, gradually narrowing their 'ecological niches'.

 


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