Tanmoy Bhattacharya, William Croft, Ian Maddieson, Cristopher Moore, Eric Smith, Logan Sutton, Jon Wilkins, Hyejin Youn

Paper #: 15-04-013

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 direct 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. Across languages carefully selected from a phylogenetically and geographically stratified sample of genera, translations of words reveal cases where a particular language uses a single polysemous word to express concepts represented by distinct words in another. We use the frequency of polysemies linking two concepts as a measure of their semantic proximity, and represent the pattern of such linkages by a weighted network. This network is highly uneven and fragmented: certain concepts are far more prone to polysemy than others, and there emerge naturally interpretable clusters loosely connected to each other. Statistical analysis shows such structural properties are consistent across different language groups, largely independent of geography, environment, and literacy. It is therefore possible to conclude the conceptual structure connecting basic vocabulary studied is primarily due to universal features of human cognition and language use.