"Efficiency in grammar: Patterns and Explanations"


  Wednesday, July 5, 2023 (Wednesday)
   Seminar room of Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies (FRIAS), University of Freiburg, Germany
Albertstraße 19
79104 Freiburg im Breisgau
Location on map

Once you are in the FRIAS building, the seminar is the first room to the right on the ground floor.


  7pm, July 4, 2023 (Tuesday)
   at "Blauer Fuchs"
Metzgerau 4
79098 Freiburg im Breisgau
Location on map

PROGRAM (Wednesday, July 5)

8:45-9:00 Introduction
9:00-10:00 Ilja Seržant
Towards efficiency structure
10:00-10:30 COFFEE BREAK
10:30-11:00 John Hawkins
Left-right asymmetries again: What do they tell us about efficiency?  
11:00-11:30 Stefan Schnell & Nils Schiborr
One new idea and UID in reference production  
11:30-12:00 Vitek Dovalil & Adriana Hanulikova
Efficiency of stabilized patterns of morphosyntactic structures at the expense of systematic nature? Experimental and corpus-based evidence  
12:00-13:30 LUNCH (at FRIAS)
13:30-14:30 Sonia Cristofaro
Efficiency and the explanation of typological universals: a source-oriented perspective  
14:30-15:00 Sergey Say
Cross-linguistic variability in complexity of valency class systems: implications for efficiency  
15:00-15:30 COFFEE BREAK
15:30-16:00 Shira Tal, Kenny Smith, Inbal Arnon & Jennifer Culbertson (online)
Communicative efficiency is present in young children and becomes more adult-like with age
16:00-16:30 Borja Herce & Chundra Cathcart
Irregular stem shortening in Romance verbs: where, when, and why  
16:30-17:00 COFFEE BREAK
17:00-17:30 Ludger Paschen
Disruptive and ultradisruptive pauses: Evidence from DoReCo  
17:30-18:00 Jürgen Bohnemeyer
Efficiency, grammaticalization, and the typology of functional expressions  
18:00-18:15 Closing remarks  
18:45 DINNER at "Jaipur" (Gerberau 5, 79098 Freiburg, map)


The purpose of this workshop is to take stock of the role of efficiency in explaining (crosslinguistic) patterns in grammar. Efficiency has been shown to be of high importance in human communication in various ways, allowing to save efforts with maximal benefits of successful transfer of information in the production and processing of speech (cf. Fedzechkina 2014; Gibson et al. 2019; Jaeger & Buz 2017; Levshina 2022).

Already Zipf (1935) showed that more frequent or predictable expressions tend to be shorter than equivalent less frequent or predictable grammatical expressions. Such patterns are efficient as they allow us to save production and processing costs with frequent expressions while maintaining successful communication. Related to that, work from an information-theoretic perspective has shown robust crosslinguistic evidence for a preference towards uniform information density (e.g. Frank & Jaeger 2008; Jaeger 2010). Such efficiency effects are not restricted to the lexicon; we also coding efficiency with grammatical expressions across languages. This was already noted by Greenberg (1966), who proposed crosslinguistic universals for e.g. singular vs. plural, present vs. future, A/S vs. P marking, showing that the more frequent functions (singular, present, A/S marking) tend to have no overt or shorter markers as opposed to the less frequent functions (plural, future, P marking). More recent, quantitative corpus work could confirm similar effects of coding efficiency in grammar (cf. Guzmán Naranjo & Becker 2021, Stave et al. 2021). Research in phonetics has also shown that frequency, predictability and informativity can impact, among others, the acoustic duration of lexical and grammatical elements (e.g. Barth 2019; Bell et al. 2009; Cohen Priva 2008; Jurafsky et al. 2001; Seyfarth 2014). Coding efficiency is also at play in reference tracking, where referents can be realized through longer and shorter forms, depending on their predictability. The most accessible referents allow for zero anaphora or pronouns (i.e. shorter forms) and less accessible referents are referred to by full lexical expressions (i.e. longer forms) (c.f. Chafe 1976; Ariel 1990; Arnold 2010; Kehler et al. 2008).

Efficiency has also been related to certain types of word order preferences across languages. Preferred word orders have been argued to involve lower production and processing costs compared to other word orders. It is well known that minimal syntactic domains or dependencies tend to be preferred over longer dependencies in the world's languages (e.g. Dryer 1992; Futrell et al. 2015; Gibson 1998; Hawkins 2014). This is efficient, as minimal structures to be held in the working memory require less resources than larger structures during language production and processing. Another way in which efficiency has been argued to account for word order concerns the accessibility of syntactic units. More specifically, there is a crosslinguistic preference for shorter or simpler elements to precede longer or heavier ones (cf. Behagel 1909/10; Hawkins 2014; Wasow 1997). Starting with more accessible elements first saves processing costs in that less resources are needed to hold those element in the working memory, which allows for more resources made available to then plan the more complex elements (MacDonald 2013).

Despite solid empirical evidence for communicative efficiency, we are still far from understanding in when and how it becomes a part of grammar and leads to typological preferences for efficient grammatical patterns. In other words, how do the more frequent and predictable grammatical markers end up being shorter than less frequent or predictable ones across the world’s languages? How and under which circumstances do certain efficient syntactic structures develop? Under which circumstances do they not develop into a more integral part of grammar and remain probabilistic choices (cf. Schnell et al. 2021)? Related to that, the explanatory role of efficiency for crosslinguistic preferences is still very much under debate in typology. Some researchers view communicative efficiency as the driver of diachronic developments towards efficient patterns and take efficient coding as an attractor state (e.g. Haspelmath 2021; Kiparsky 2008; Seržant & Moroz 2022). Others have argued for efficient patterns to be the outcome of several, unrelated diachronic processes that do not involve efficiency as the driver of change (e.g. Becker 2022; Cristofaro 2019, 2021).

To address these and related issues, we invite the submission of abstracts concerned with – including but not limited to – the following issues:

  • evidence for different types of efficiency in grammar within and across languages (e.g. from psycholinguistics, corpus linguistics or typology)
  • evidence for grammatical phenomena where efficiency plays no role or only a minor role
  • other factors that efficiency interacts with
  • how and under which circumstances efficient grammatical structures develop
  • efficiency as an explanatory factor for grammatical structure(s) within languages?
  • the role of efficiency in accounting for crosslinguistic trends found in typology
  • efficiency as an explanatory factor for crosslinguistic patterns?


Laura Becker, University of Freiburg (
Department of Linguistics
Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies