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Cogn Sci. 2016 Nov;40(8):2081-2094. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12312. Epub 2015 Oct 12.

Historical Semantic Chaining and Efficient Communication: The Case of Container Names.

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Department of Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley.
Department of Linguistics, Cognitive Science Program, University of California, Berkeley.
Department of Psychology, Lehigh University.


Semantic categories in the world's languages often reflect a historical process of chaining: A name for one referent is extended to a conceptually related referent, and from there on to other referents, producing a chain of exemplars that all bear the same name. The beginning and end points of such a chain might in principle be rather dissimilar. There is also evidence supporting a contrasting picture: Languages tend to support efficient, informative communication, often through semantic categories in which all exemplars are similar. Here, we explore this tension through computational analyses of existing cross-language naming and sorting data from the domain of household containers. We find (a) formal evidence for historical semantic chaining, and (b) evidence that systems of categories in this domain nonetheless support near-optimally efficient communication. Our results demonstrate that semantic chaining is compatible with efficient communication, and they suggest that chaining may be constrained by the functional need for efficient communication.


Artifact categories; Efficient communication; Historical semantics; Semantic chaining; Semantic universals; Semantic variation

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