Conceptual Similarity and Communicative Need Shape Colexification: An Experimental Study

Cognitive Science 45 (9):e13035 (2021)
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Abstract

Colexification refers to the phenomenon of multiple meanings sharing one word in a language. Cross‐linguistic lexification patterns have been shown to be largely predictable, as similar concepts are often colexified. We test a recent claim that, beyond this general tendency, communicative needs play an important role in shaping colexification patterns. We approach this question by means of a series of human experiments, using an artificial language communication game paradigm. Our results across four experiments match the previous cross‐linguistic findings: all other things being equal, speakers do prefer to colexify similar concepts. However, we also find evidence supporting the communicative need hypothesis: when faced with a frequent need to distinguish similar pairs of meanings, speakadjust their colexification preferences to maintain communicative efficiency and avoid colexifying those similar meanings which need to be distinguished in communication. This research provides further evidence to support the argument that languages are shaped by the needs and preferences of their speakers.

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