Diachronic semantic change in language is constrained by how people use and learn language
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Description: While it has long been understood that the human mind evolved to learn language, recent studies have begun to ask the inverted question: how language has evolved under the cognitive constraints of its users and become more learnable over time. In this paper, we explored how the semantic change of English words is shaped by the way humans acquire and process language. In Study 1, we quantified the extent of semantic change over the past 200 years and found that meaning change is more likely for words that are acquired later in life and more difficult to process. We argue that it is human cognition that constrains the semantic evolution of words, rather than the other way around because historical meanings of words were not easily accessible to people living today, and therefore could not have directly influenced how they learn and process language. In Study 2 we went further to show that semantic change, while bringing the benefit of meeting communicative needs, is cognitively costly for those who were born early enough to experience the change: Semantic change between 1970 and 2000 hindered processing speeds among middle-aged adults (aged 45-55) but not in younger adults (aged <25) in a semantic decision task. This hampering effect may have in turn curbed the rate of semantic change so that language does not change too fast for human mind to catch up. Taken together, our research demonstrate that semantic change is shaped by processing and acquisition patterns across generations of language users.