In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Exemplar-Based Models in Linguistics

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Linguistics Exemplar-Based Models in Linguistics
Abby Kaplan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0201


Exemplar theory is not a single theory, but rather a family of related approaches to understanding linguistic systems. Exemplar-based approaches entered the field of linguistics from psychology and have attracted increasing attention since the 1990s. Research that explicitly adopts the label of exemplar theory is highly diverse, but typically shares at least some of the following basic assumptions: (1) Linguistic knowledge does not consist of abstract generalizations but rather of a large number of specific remembered linguistic experiences (“exemplars”). A linguistic unit, such as a word, consists of a cloud of exemplars. (2) These exemplars do not consist (only) of discrete abstract units, but of rich phonetic detail, and of information about the extra-linguistic context in which they were experienced. (3) Exemplars may consist of more than just morphemes (the traditional unit of lexical storage); whole words and even whole phrases or utterances may be stored. (4) Generalizations about words and other units arise from the central tendencies of the clouds of exemplars associated with them. Research on exemplar theory is proceeding on two major fronts. First, computational implementations of specific exemplar models allow researchers to explore precisely what types of linguistic behavior these models predict. Second, empirical work tests how well actual linguistic patterns do, or do not, match exemplar-based predictions. Exemplar theory has attracted attention both in traditionally formalist/symbolic fields such as phonology—where one topic of lively ongoing research is whether, and to what extent, “pure” exemplar models should be supplemented with more abstract knowledge—and in sociolinguistics; many researchers find exemplar models attractive because they have the potential to unify social and nonsocial sources of variation with a single mechanism.

General Overviews

Two types of introductions to exemplar theory are presented here. First are general overviews that describe the basic architecture of a typical exemplar model, and usually contrast exemplar theory with traditional generative or abstractionist approaches. Second are reviews that evaluate some of the basic predictions of exemplar models in light of the experimental literature.

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