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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Can a pressure against homophones explain phonological neighborhoods?


Words in human languages cluster together in phonological neighborhoods more closely than would be expected by chance. But why? One explanation is that large neighborhoods are directly selected for, possibly because they scaffold word learning and production. But it's also possible that they emerge as a byproduct of other constraints or selection pressures operating over real lexica. We advance one such selection pressure as a candidate explanation. A pressure to avoid overloading unique wordforms with homophones may lead to clusters of words that are not identical but similar. Using simulated baselines, we test the viability of this alternative account. We find that a pressure against loading too many meanings on unique wordforms––paired with the phonotactics of a target language––produces lexica with neighborhoods that are at least as large on average as those in real lexica. This does not rule out the possibility of a pro-neighborhood pressure, but it does demonstrate the viability of a parsimonious alternative account based on a pressure against homonymy for which there is independent evidence.

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