Colexification across languages reflects cognitive efficiency
Professor Yang Xu, Department of Computer Science and Cognitive Science Program, University College, University of Toronto
Human language relies on a finite lexicon to express a potentially infinite set of ideas. A key result of this tension is that words become polysemous over time: A single word can be extended to express multiple different senses, e.g., face may refer to “body part”, “expression”, or “surface of an object”. Certain patterns of polysemy tend to recur across languages; that is, the same set of senses is labeled by a single word form, despite variations in language genealogy, geography, climate, and culture (Youn et al., PNAS, 2016). We examine the perspective that the cross-linguistic frequency distribution of shared polysemy reflects a drive toward cognitive efficiency. We test our hypothesis using a large database of digitized lexicons from the world's languages. Preliminary results suggest that semantic associativity predicts the frequency with which senses are colexified across languages, and it does so better than other alternative variables that we have considered. This outcome is consistent with the view that recurring patterns of colexification arise from a historical process of word sense extension that tends to minimize cognitive effort.