Greater early disambiguating information for less-probable words: The lexicon is shaped by incremental processing

Adam King, Andrew Wedel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


There has been much work over the last century on optimization of the lexicon for efficient communication, with a particular focus on the form of words as an evolving balance between production ease and communicative accuracy. Zipf’s law of abbreviation, the cross-linguistic trend for less-probable words to be longer, represents some of the strongest evidence the lexicon is shaped by a pressure for communicative efficiency. However, the various sounds that make up words do not all contribute the same amount of disambiguating information to a listener. Rather, the information a sound contributes depends in part on what specific lexical competitors exist in the lexicon. In addition, because the speech stream is perceived incrementally, early sounds in a word contribute on average more information than later sounds. Using a dataset of diverse languages, we demonstrate that, above and beyond containing more sounds, less-probable words contain sounds that convey more disambiguating information overall. We show further that this pattern tends to be strongest at word-beginnings, where sounds can contribute the most information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalOpen Mind
StatePublished - 2020


  • Incremental processing
  • Information theory
  • Language efficiency
  • Language evolution
  • Zipf’s law of abbreviation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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