Word meanings across languages

August 9, 2013

Word meanings across languages are sometimes viewed as reflecting a universal conceptual repertoire - or, at the other extreme, culturally varying linguistic convention. This project, headed by Terry Regier, explores a third possibility: that there are better and worse ways of partitioning semantic space for the purposes of communication, and that systems of word meanings across languages tend to reflect near-optimal partitions of such a space. This idea can in principle account for both universal tendencies and some degree of linguistic convention. Ongoing work tests the idea against cross-language databases of spatial terms and color terms, and extensions are planned to other semantic domains.