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Title: On the universal structure of human lexical semantics

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 literarymore » tradition. As a result, 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.« less
ORCiD logo [1] ;  [2] ;  [3] ;  [4] ;  [5] ;  [6] ;  [7] ; ORCiD logo [8]
  1. Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, Oxford (United Kingdom); Univ. of Oxford, Oxford (United Kingdom); Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM (United States)
  2. Indiana Univ., Bloomington, IN (United States)
  3. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM (United States); Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo (Japan)
  4. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM (United States)
  5. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM (United States); Ronin Institute, Montclair, NJ (United States)
  6. Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM (United States); Univ. of California, Berkeley, CA (United States)
  7. Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM (United States)
  8. Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM (United States); Los Alamos National Lab. (LANL), Los Alamos, NM (United States)
Publication Date:
Report Number(s):
Journal ID: ISSN 0027-8424
Grant/Contract Number:
Accepted Manuscript
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Additional Journal Information:
Journal Volume: 113; Journal Issue: 7; Journal ID: ISSN 0027-8424
National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC (United States)
Research Org:
Los Alamos National Lab. (LANL), Los Alamos, NM (United States)
Sponsoring Org:
Santa Fe Institute; USDOE
Country of Publication:
United States
96 KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT AND PRESERVATION; polysemy; human cognition; semantic universals; conceptual structure; network comparison
OSTI Identifier: