Chapter published in:English Historical Linguistics: Change in structure and meaning. Papers from the XXth ICEHL
Edited by Bettelou Los, Claire Cowie, Patrick Honeybone and Graeme Trousdale
[Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 358] 2022
► pp. 61–90
Chapter 3Ambiguity resolution and the evolution of homophones in English
Based on a quantitative study of the evolution of homophones in English, we present an argument about why homophones occur. Zipf’s law, which states that word frequency decreases as a power law of its rank, can be seen as the outcome of form-meaning associations, adopted in order to comply with listener and speaker needs. This implies that one form can correspond to many meanings (i.e., polysemy and homophony). We argue that homophony is a desirable feature in communication systems, is stable, and increases through time. When a large number of homophones emerge, however, an impetus to avoid homophones comes into play. We suggest that the evolution of diatones is a case of the avoidance of homophony. Related to this, we examine the neural substrates of bisyllabic noun-verb homophones, using near-infrared spectroscopy. We show that noun and verb categories are represented in different neural substrates in the left hemisphere, and relate this to our historical data, explaining why the actuation of diatone-formation was connected with production in frequent homophones in the 16th century, but was connected with perception in infrequent words after the 17th century.
Keywords: linguistic evolution, homophones, ambiguity, Zipf’s law, word frequency, diatones, neural substrates
- 1.Introductory remarks
- 2.The evolution of homophones
- 2.1Why do homophones exist?
- 2.2Word frequencies and homophones in Present-Day English
- 2.3Homophones in Old English and Middle English
- 2.3.1The stability of OE homophones
- 2.3.2Stability of ME homophones
- 2.3.3Word frequency of OE and ME homophones
- 3.Evolution of diatones
- 3.1Why do diatones evolve?
- 3.2Word frequency and diatones
- 4.Neural bases of the evolution of homophones and diatones
- 4.1Neural substrates of bisyllabic noun-verb homophones in English
- 4.2Neural substrates of diatones
- 5.Concluding remarks
- Author queries
Published online: 02 February 2022
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