Linguistic Assessment Criteria for Explaining Language Change: A Case Study on Syncretism in German Definite Articles


The German definite article paradigm, which is notorious for its case syncretism, is widely considered to be the accidental by-product of diachronic changes. This paper argues instead that the evolution of the paradigm has been motivated by the needs and constraints of language usage. This hypothesis is supported by experiments that compare the current paradigm to its Old High German ancestor (OHG; 900?1100ad) in terms of linguistic assessment criteria such as cue reliability, processing efficiency and ease of articulation. Such a comparison has been made possible by ?bringing back alive? the OHG system through a computational reconstruction
in the form of a processing model.The experiments demonstrate that syncretism has made the New High German system more efficient for processing, pronunciation and perception than its historical predecessor, without harming the language?s strength at disambiguating utterances.

Journal: Language Dynamics and Change
Page: 105–132
Volume: 3