Linguistic planning for information uniformity is an adaptation for noise resistance

Rachael Bailes, Christine Cuskley, Anton Ingason and Joel Wallenberg

In his mathematical model of communication systems (known as Information Theory), Shannon (1948) formally described the relationship between the amount of noise affecting a communication channel, and the compensatory features required for successful signalling across that channel. Existing empirical evidence suggests that structural features optimised for noise resistance can be observed in neural spike synchronisation (Popovych, Yanchuk, & Tass, 2013), memory encoding (Wallenberg, Cuskley, Fadhilah, Read, & Smulders, in prep), and some parts of linguistic production (Fenk & Fenk, 1980; Aylett & Turk, 2004; Jaeger & Levy, 2007), as well as a variety of physical and behavioural adaptations in animal acoustic communication systems (Brumm & Slabbekoorn, 2005). These observations, together with Shannon’s theorem, suggest that solutions to the problem of noise may be a deep and recurrent feature of successful communication systems.

Following Fenk and Fenk (1980, see also; Fenk-Oczlon, 2001), we suggest that linguistic planning demonstrates adaptations for noise resistance, and further suggest it may do so in ways that are particular to language. Specifically, linguistic elements may be dynamically ordered across the whole utterance so as to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic communication failure as a result of noise. Here, we summarise evidence that suggests information uniformity is a feature of utterances that is specifically and actively preserved by linguistic
planning across time, unperturbed by language change. We go on to suggest that this feature confers functional noise resistance to linguistic utterances. We present an analysis of diachronic data from the Penn Parsed Corpora
of Historical English (Kroch, Santorini, & Diertani, 2010, 2016; Kroch & Taylor, 2000) and the Icelandic Parsed Historical Corpus (IcePaHC; Wallenberg, Ingason, Sigurðsson, & Rögnvaldsson, 2011) that uses a new measure for the uniformity of information peaks and troughs across whole utterances (Cuskley, Bailes, & Wallenberg, 2020). We show that, during the change from OV to VO in Icelandic, the information uniformity of utterances remains stable across time.

We suggest that this stable uniformity results, in part, from speakers combining both VO and OV word orders with specific object and subject types, such that the outcome has a uniform information distribution. Less uniform (but equally plausible and grammatically sound) combinations of object/subject types and word order are likewise consistently disfavoured, even as the proportion of OV to VO changes dramatically. It is neither OV nor VO that favours uniformity, but rather, speakers plan uniform utterances by manipulating whatever syntactic resources they have access to at a given time. This suggests that linguistic planning actively stabilises the information uniformity of utterances even as other aspects of linguistic structure are in flux. We then go on to briefly discuss the significance of this evidence for considerations about the evolution of language, noting additional evidence that non-clustering peaks and troughs across a string provide functional noise resistance (Cuskley et al., 2020). We conclude that the uniform distribution of peaks and troughs of information (through the selection and ordering of elements in an utterance) is actively preserved in linguistic planning, and suggest that this is an adaptation for the prevention of communication failure due to noise.


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