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Gemma at Abralin Ao Vivo: "When Do Languages Use the Same Word for Different Meanings? The Goldilocks Principle in the Lexicon"

Gemma at Abralin Ao Vivo: "When Do Languages Use the Same Word for Different Meanings? The Goldilocks Principle in the Lexicon"

10.12.2021

 

(Update: the video is available!)

  • Speaker: Gemma Boleda
  • When: Wednesday 15 December 2021 18.00h
  • Where: online at Abralin Ao Vivo

Abstract: It is common for languages to express multiple meanings with the same word, a phenomenon known as "colexification". For instance, the meanings FINGER and TOE colexify in the word 'dit' in Catalan (the word 'dit' expresses both meanings), while they do not colexify in English. Colexification has been suggested to follow universal constraints. In particular, previous work has shown that related meanings are more prone to colexify. This tendency has been explained in terms of the cognitive pressure for simplicity, since expressing related meanings with the same word makes lexicons easier to learn and use. The present study examines the interplay between this pressure and a competing universal constraint, the functional pressure for languages to maximize informativeness. We hypothesize that colexification follows a Goldilocks principle: meanings are more likely to colexify if they are related (fostering simplicity), but not so related as to become confusable and cause misunderstandings (fostering informativeness). We find support for this principle in data from over 1200 languages and 1400 meanings. Our results thus suggest that universal principles shape the lexicons of natural languages, and contribute to the growing body of evidence suggesting that languages evolve to strike a balance between competing functional and cognitive pressures.

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