Competition and symmetry in an artificial word learning task

Brian Buccola · Isabelle Dautriche · Emmanuel Chemla

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Abstract. Natural language involves competition. The sentences we choose to utter activate alternative sentences (those we chose not to utter), which hearers typically infer to be false. Hence, as a first approximation, the more alternatives a sentence activates, the more inferences it will trigger. But a closer look at the theory of competition shows that this is not quite true and that under specific circumstances, so-called symmetric alternatives cancel each other out. We present an artificial word learning experiment in which participants learn words that may enter into competition with one another. The results show that a mechanism of competition takes place, and that the subtle prediction that alternatives trigger inferences, and may stop triggering them after a point due to symmetry, is borne out. This study provides a minimal testing paradigm to reveal competition and some of its subtle characteristics in human languages and beyond.

Keywords: competition · symmetry · alternatives · psycholinguistics

Additional material: Data (CSV) · Statistical analysis (R script)