Friday, February 5, 2016

Universal Semantic Structure?

Hyejin Youna, Logan Suttond, Eric Smithc, Cristopher Moorec, Jon F. Wilkinsc,f, Ian Maddiesong, William Croft, and Tanmoy Bhattacharyac. On the universal structure of human lexical semantics. PNAS 2016: 1520752113v1-201520752. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1520752113


Semantics, or meaning expressed through language, provides indirect access to an underlying level of conceptual structure. To what degree this conceptual structure is universal or is due to properties of cultural histories, or to the environment inhabited by a speech community, is still controversial. Meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterize, for quantitative comparative studies. Using cross-linguistic dictionaries across languages carefully selected as an unbiased sample reflecting the diversity of human languages, we provide an empirical measure of semantic relatedness between concepts. Our analysis uncovers a universal structure underlying the sampled vocabulary across language groups independent of their phylogenetic relations, their speakers’ culture, and geographic environment.


How universal is human conceptual structure? The way concepts are organized in the human brain may reflect distinct features of cultural, historical, and environmental background in addition to properties universal to human cognition. Semantics, or meaning expressed through language, provides indirect access to the underlying conceptual structure, but meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterize. Here, we provide an empirical measure of semantic proximity between concepts using cross-linguistic dictionaries to translate words to and from languages carefully selected to be representative of worldwide diversity. These translations reveal cases where a particular language uses a single “polysemous” word to express multiple concepts that another language represents using distinct words. We use the frequency of such polysemies linking two concepts as a measure of their semantic proximity and represent the pattern of these linkages by a weighted network. This network is highly structured: Certain concepts are far more prone to polysemy than others, and naturally interpretable clusters of closely related concepts emerge. Statistical analysis of the polysemies observed in a subset of the basic vocabulary shows that these structural properties are consistent across different language groups, and largely independent of geography, environment, and the presence or absence of a literary tradition. The methods developed here can be applied to any semantic domain to reveal the extent to which its conceptual structure is, similarly, a universal attribute of human cognition and language use.

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