Brochhagen, Thomas & Gemma Boleda (2022). When do languages use the same word for different meanings? The Goldilocks principle in colexification.
DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105179


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Abstract: Lexical ambiguity is pervasive in language, and often systematic. For instance, the Spanish word dedo can refer to a toe or a finger, that is, these two meanings colexify in Spanish; and they do so as well in over one hundred other languages. Previous work shows that related meanings are more likely to colexify. This is attributed to cognitive pressure towards simplicity in language, as it makes lexicons easier to learn and use. The present study examines the interplay between this pressure and the competing pressure for languages to support accurate information transfer. We hypothesize that colexification follows a Goldilocks principle that balances the two pressures: meanings are more likely to attach to the same word when they are related to an optimal degree—neither too much, nor too little. We find support for this principle in data from over 1200 languages and 1400 meanings. Our results thus suggest that universal forces shape the lexicons of natural languages. More broadly, they contribute to the growing body of evidence suggesting that languages evolve to strike a balance between competing functional and cognitive pressures.

Keywords: Language universals; Colexification; Cognitive effort; Ambiguity; Efficient communication