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Lexical frequency and linguistic variation


Lexical frequency has been argued (by, for example, Bybee 2007, Pierrehumbert 2001) to be a significant factor in the organization of linguistic structure and the operation of phonological processes, such that words that are used a lot are expected to behave differently in certain respects from those that occur more rarely.  Variable processes in language are especially implicated in such models.  This paper considers empirical evidence from a number of studies of linguistic variation that have looked at lexical frequency as a potential predictor, to investigate the validity and extent of frequency effects.  The results are mixed: frequency does appear to affect some variable lenition processes, like -t,d deletion in English but is unreliable in others, e.g. –s deletion in Spanish.  It interacts significantly with morphological constraints: -t,d deletion increases with frequency in monomorphemes, but not derived forms (regular past tense forms).  And frequency effects can be found beyond the phonology: in morphological variation, for example, synthetic comparatives and superlatives in English are favored with frequent adjectival roots.  In syntax, Spanish pro-drop shows no general frequency effect, but frequency systematically interacts with all other constraints on the process, magnifying them in high-frequency forms and attenuating them in low frequency forms.  And there are cases where frequency fails to have any significant effect, or makes the wrong predictions.  The data therefore suggest that frequency is a characteristic of entries in the mental lexicon that is available to speakers for constructing generalizations about linguistic operations, but frequency does not regularly predict or entail specific linguistic outcomes.