The interaction between cognitive ease and informativeness shapes the lexicons of natural languages

Thomas Brochhagen, Gemma Boleda


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 “dedo” in Spanish, 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 ease, 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 meanings are more likely to colexify if they are related (fostering ease), 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. More broadly, they contribute to the growing body of evidence suggesting that languages evolve to strike a balance between competing functional and cognitive pressures.
Anthology ID:
2022.fieldmatters-1.5
Volume:
Proceedings of the first workshop on NLP applications to field linguistics
Month:
October
Year:
2022
Address:
Gyeongju, Republic of Korea
Venue:
FieldMatters
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Publisher:
International Conference on Computational Linguistics
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Pages:
42–44
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URL:
https://aclanthology.org/2022.fieldmatters-1.5
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Cite (ACL):
Thomas Brochhagen and Gemma Boleda. 2022. The interaction between cognitive ease and informativeness shapes the lexicons of natural languages. In Proceedings of the first workshop on NLP applications to field linguistics, pages 42–44, Gyeongju, Republic of Korea. International Conference on Computational Linguistics.
Cite (Informal):
The interaction between cognitive ease and informativeness shapes the lexicons of natural languages (Brochhagen & Boleda, FieldMatters 2022)
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https://aclanthology.org/2022.fieldmatters-1.5.pdf