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Publication . Article . 2022

Quantifiers in natural language: efficient communication and degrees of semantic universals

Steinert-Threlkeld, Shane;
Open Access
Published: 30 Aug 2022
Publisher: Open Science Framework

While the languages of the world vary greatly, they exhibit systematic patterns, as well. Semantic universals are restrictions on the variation in meaning exhibit cross-linguistically (e.g., that, in all languages, expressions of a certain type can only denote meanings with a certain special property). This paper pursues an efficient communication analysis to explain the presence of semantic universals in a domain of function words: quantifiers. Two experiments measure how well languages do in optimally trading off between competing pressures of simplicity and informativeness. First, we show that artificial languages which more closely resemble natural languages are more optimal. Then, we introduce information-theoretic measures of degrees of semantic universals and show that these are not correlated with optimality in a random sample of artificial languages. These results suggest both that efficient communication shapes semantic typology in both content and function word domains, as well as that semantic universals may not stand in need of independent explanation.

Subjects by Vocabulary

Microsoft Academic Graph classification: Artificial intelligence business.industry business Function (engineering) media_common.quotation_subject media_common Natural language processing computer.software_genre computer Variation (linguistics) Problem of universals Natural language Constructed language Meaning (philosophy of language) Computer science Simplicity Function word


semantic universals, efficient communication, quantifiers, monotonicity, conservativity, simplicity, Science, Q, Astrophysics, QB460-466, Physics, QC1-999, General Physics and Astronomy, informativeness, semantic typology, Article

Related Organizations
69 references, page 1 of 7

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Funded by
Cognitive Semantics and Quantities
  • Funder: European Commission (EC)
  • Project Code: 716230
  • Funding stream: H2020 | ERC | ERC-STG
Validated by funder
Related to Research communities
Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage
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Europe PubMed Central
Article . 2021
Data sources: PubMed Central