How arbitrary is language?

Padraic Monaghan, Richard C. Shillcock, Morten H. Christiansen, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is a long established convention that the relationship between sounds and meanings of words is essentially arbitrary—typically the sound of a word gives no hint of its meaning. However, there are numerous reported instances of systematic sound–meaning mappings in language, and this systematicity has been claimed to be important for early language development. In a large-scale corpus analysis of English, we show that sound–meaning mappings are more systematic than would be expected by chance. Furthermore, this systematicity is more pronounced for words involved in the early stages of language acquisition and reduces in later vocabulary development. We propose that the vocabulary is structured to enable systematicity in early language learning to promote language acquisition, while also incorporating arbitrariness for later language in order to facilitate communicative expressivity and efficiency.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20130299
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1651
Publication statusPublished - 19 Sep 2014


  • language acquisition
  • language evolution
  • vocabulary
  • arbitrariness of the sign

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