Centre for Language Evolution
School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences
University of Edinburgh
Weaving an ambiguous lexicon
One striking observation is that the set of words in a given language is highly ambiguous and confusable. Words may have multiple senses (e.g., homonymy, polysemy) and are represented by an arrangement of a finite set of sounds that potentially increase their confusability (e.g., minimal pairs). Lexicon bearing such properties present a problem for children learning their language who seem to have difficulty learning similar sounding words and resist learning words having multiple meanings. Using lexical models and experimental methods in toddlers and adults, I present quantitative evidence that lexicons are, indeed, more confusable than what would be expected by chance alone. I then present empirical evidence suggesting that toddlers have the tools to bypass these problems given that ambiguous or confusable words are constrained to appear in distinct context. Finally, I submit that the study of ambiguous words reveal factors that were currently missing from current accounts of word learning.
Taken together this research suggests that ambiguous and confusable words, while present in the language, may be restricted in their distribution in the lexicon and that these restrictions reflect (in part) how children learn languages.