Nick Ellis gave a keynote presentation  "Usage, Usage in Mind, Usage in Learning, Mind in Usage" at the Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics: Usage-based Approaches to Language, Language Learning, and Multilingualism, Georgetown University, March 14-16, 2014.

Read more about the conference here.



Language usage variously expresses, aligns, and negotiates human cognition. In so doing, it replicates, teaches, and propagates language itself.

1) Usage. The usage of Verb-Locative and Verb-Object-Locative English verb-argument constructions (VACs) is investigated in large corpora in terms of grammatical form, semantics, lexical constituency, and distribution patterns. VAC type-token frequency follows Zipfian scale-free patterns, as does the degree distribution of the corresponding semantic networks. This suggests that language form, language meaning, and language usage might come together across scales to promote robust induction by means of statistical learning over limited samples.

2) Usage in Mind: L1 knowledge. VAC processing is sensitive to statistical patterns of usage. Native speakers of English generated V slot-fillers in 40 sparse VAC frames such as ‘he __ across the....’. Multiple regression analyses predicting the frequencies of types generated show independent contributions of (i) verb frequency in the VAC, (ii) VAC-verb contingency, and (iii) verb prototypicality in terms of centrality within the VAC semantic network. VAC processing involves rich associations, tuned by verb type and token frequencies and their contingencies of usage, which interface syntax, lexis, and semantics.

3) Usage in Mind: L2 knowledge. German, Spanish, and Czech advanced learners of English show the same effects, although analyses of their frequencies of production residualized against the English native speaker responses demonstrated additional influence of L1 transfer. L2 knowledge thus demonstrates effects of L2 and L1 usage.

4) Usage in Learning: Child language acquisition. Analysis of the distribution of VACs in English child-directed speech (CDS) and child language in CHILDES corpora is also shown to be Zipfian, and measures of VAC-verb contingency showed VACs to be selective in their constituency. Language acquisition follows the leads of CDS usage.

5) Usage in Learning: Artificial language learning. Adult learning of artificial languages which differ in type-token frequency distribution demonstrate the influence of Zipfian profiles provided by the presence (vs. absence) of pronouns and generic verb types.

6) Mind in Usage: Robust language propagation. Agent-based models of intergenerational transmission show how talking at the level of maximum generality to allow unambiguous communication (balancing Speaker and Listener “least-effort”) produces Zipfian frequency usage profiles which promote robust propagation.

Roger Brown (1958, p. 20) concluded his ‘naming of things’ paper:  “Adults give a thing the name it is most commonly given... It seems likely that things are first named to categorize them in a maximally useful way.” These analyses of the verbs in VACs in usage and in cognition shows these principles hold as well for the naming (and grammar) of doing.