Wordform Similarity Increases With Semantic Similarity: An Analysis of 100 Languages

Cognitive Science:2149-2169 (2017)
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Abstract

Although the mapping between form and meaning is often regarded as arbitrary, there are in fact well-known constraints on words which are the result of functional pressures associated with language use and its acquisition. In particular, languages have been shown to encode meaning distinctions in their sound properties, which may be important for language learning. Here, we investigate the relationship between semantic distance and phonological distance in the large-scale structure of the lexicon. We show evidence in 100 languages from a diverse array of language families that more semantically similar word pairs are also more phonologically similar. This suggests that there is an important statistical trend for lexicons to have semantically similar words be phonologically similar as well, possibly for functional reasons associated with language learning.

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Kyle Mahowald
University of Texas at Austin