Times Square Subway Station

The Reduction Effect

Last week I talked about how high-frequency words and phrases resist analogical change. This entrenchment happens because analogical change is driven by forgetting, and it’s harder to forget something that you’ve said a lot. In this post I want to talk about a different effect of frequency, the reduction effect, where high-frequency words and phrases get shortened and simplified.

We see reduction in all the words and phrases we say most often. “How are you?” becomes “Hiya” and then “Hi.” “I don’t know” becomes “I dunno” and then something I can’t even write, a single “uh” vowel with a low-high-low tone pattern. “I am going to let you” becomes “I’m gonna let you,” and then, in the speech of Kanye West and Eminem, “amaletchoo.”

A lot of people find these frequency effects confusing. How can high frequency words and phrases be simultaneously the first to change and the last to change? What makes this possible is that they are two different kinds of change. Entrenchment is about forgetting, and the more we do things, the more we remember how to do them. Reduction is about ease, and the more we do things the easier they become.

This is like any habit. Because I take the subway to Times Square so frequently, I not only never forget the way, but I do all kinds of things to make it faster and easier. I know where to stand on the platform, where to sit on the train, and when to stand up, so that I get off right by the most convenient staircase.

More importantly, I have a low-level “muscle memory” of the movements involved in the trip. Every time, I climb the stairs the same way, sit down the same way, stand up the same way. It’s the same with unlocking my apartment door or cooking a steak. My movements are all smaller and smoother. I can do a lot of it without thinking.

As with entrenchment, I learned about the Reduction Effect in class with Joan Bybee. In one of her early papers, published in 1976 under the name Joan B. Hooper, she credits Hugo Schuchardt with discovering the relationship. In 1885 (German PDF p. 28 | English translation p. 56), Schuchardt wrote, “What is more natural than making things easier whenever frequency provides the strongest impulse for this and wherever the danger of misunderstanding is least?”

I know I said I’d talk about why it’s not so surprising that we get “snuck.” I’m almost there; I wanted to get this relatively straightforward stuff out of the way first.

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