Semantic chaining and efficient communication: The case of container names


Semantic categories in the world’s languages often reflect a historical process of chaining: A name for one idea is extended to a conceptually related idea, and from there on to other ideas, producing a chain of concepts that all bear the same name. The beginning and end points of such a chain might in principle be conceptually 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: (1) formal evidence for historical semantic chaining, and (2) evidence that systems of categories in this domain nonetheless support near-optimally efficient communication. Our results suggest that semantic chaining may be constrained by the functional need for efficient, informative communication.

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