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Tracing how words evolve may teach Siri a thing or two

Researchers have examined over 1,000 years of English language evolution and created computational models to track how words evolve to have multiple meanings over time.

The research could help voice-controlled personal assistants like Alexa and Siri when they’re faced with words like “face” that have multiple meanings including a body part or an action.

“…the ways in which words have developed new meanings are not arbitrary, but instead reflect fundamental properties of how we think and communicate with one another…”

The findings, which appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provide new insights into how language evolves, and could help digital assistants step up their game in natural language processing.

Researchers examined over 1,000 years of English language evolution and created computational models to track how words have grown multiple meanings over time. Their discovery has the potential to teach machines to follow the cognitive steps that humans have taken to add new definitions to their vocabulary.

For the study, researchers tested their computational models’ ability to predict the order in which new meanings of English words have emerged over the centuries. Then they checked these predictions against the Historical Thesaurus of English, which documents the dates in which English word meanings first entered the language.

One of the models, known as “nearest-neighbor chaining”—which links new word meanings to the closest, existing word meanings—best predicted the historical data.

“We used observed historical data from English to reverse-engineer the structures that relate words to their different meanings,” says study coauthor Mahesh Srinivasan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the department’s Language and Cognitive Development Lab.

How European languages got words like ‘pea’

The same research team previously mapped 1,100 years of metaphoric English language to track how native speakers have added figurative word meanings to their vocabulary.

“Our studies are beginning to show that the ways in which words have developed new meanings are not arbitrary, but instead reflect fundamental properties of how we think and communicate with one another,” Srinivasan says.

Coauthors of the study are from the University of Toronto, Lehigh University, and UC Berkeley.

Source: UC Berkeley

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