Indefinite pronouns optimize the simplicity/informativeness trade-off
Milica Denić, Shane Steinert-Threlkeld, Jakub Szymanik
April 2022
 

The vocabulary of human languages has been argued to support efficient communication by optimizing the trade-off between simplicity and informativeness (Kemp and Regier 2012). The argument has been based on cross-linguistic analyses of vocabulary in semantic domains of content words such as kinship, color, and number terms. The present work extends this analysis to a category of function words: indefinite pronouns (e.g. someone, anyone, no-one, cf. Haspelmath 2001). We build on previous work to establish the meaning space and featural make-up for indefinite pronouns, and show that indefinite pronoun systems across languages optimize the simplicity/informativeness trade-off. This demonstrates that pressures for efficient communication shape both content and function word categories, thus tying in with the conclusions of recent work on quantifiers by Steinert-Threlkeld (2019). Furthermore, we argue that the trade-off may explain some of the universal properties of indefinite pronouns, thus reducing the explanatory load for linguistic theories.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/006192
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Cognitive Science
keywords: indefinites; complexity; informativeness; trade-off; efficiency; linguistic universals; function words, semantics
previous versions: v1 [September 2021]
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