Word Frequency Can Affect What You Choose to Say

AbstractThough communicative goals clearly drive word choice in language production, online demands suggest that accessibility might play a role, too. If the benefits of accessibility are important enough to communication, more accessible words (high-frequency words) might be chosen over more accurate, less accessible ones. We used a novel artificial language learning paradigm to test whether high-frequency words are preferred over low-frequency words at a cost of meaning accuracy. Participants learned eight words which corresponded to precise angles on a compass. On test trials, participants viewed angles lying in-between two trained angles and were asked to produce a word for the angle. Across two experiments, we showed that participants extended their use of high-frequency words to more distal angles compared to low-frequency words. In cases of competition between high- and low-frequency words, the former tended to win out even when less accurate, suggesting that accessibility can compromise some accuracy.

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