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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Zipf's law of abbreviation and common ground: Past communicative success hampers the re-optimization of language

  • Author(s): Kuek, Jacob C;
  • Ferdinand, Vanessa
  • et al.

Zipf’s Law of Abbreviation (ZLA) states that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter its length tends to be. This arises due to the optimal trade-off between competing pressures for accuracy and efficiency in communication, known as the Principle of Least Effort. Existing research has not focused on how individuals adapt their language use to remain optimal despite language change and whether social factors like common ground affect this. To investigate this, we replicated and extended the artificial language learning paradigm and communication game of Kanwal et al. (2017). We found participants were able to re-optimize their language use according to ZLA after a language change event, but this ability was hampered by common ground. This research identifies common ground as one potential cause for observed sub-optimalities in human languages and may have implications for understanding the dynamics of language change across communities where common ground varies.

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