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Word formation supports efficient communication: The case of compounds


Compounding is a common type of word formation extensively studied in linguistics and cognitive psychology. A growing line of research suggests that the lexicon supports efficient communication by balancing informativeness and simplicity. We propose that the formation of novel compounds reflects a similar tradeoff between informativeness and word length. We formalize this hypothesis in information-theoretic terms and develop a computational procedure to evaluate our hypothesis on English noun compounds that emerged over the past century. We find that attested compounds achieve more efficient tradeoffs between informativeness and word length than do alternative word forms. Our work demonstrates how word formation and compositionality can be connected with information-theoretic approaches to the design of the lexicon.

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