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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Culture, communicative need, and the efficiency of semantic categories


It has been proposed that a drive for efficient communication shapes systems of semantic categories across languages. Recent work in this vein has increasingly emphasized communicative need: how often a particular object or idea will need to be referenced. Many studies assume for simplicity that the distribution of need across referents is the same for different cultures, and that this need distribution can be reliably inferred from corpora. In contrast, we elicited culture-specific estimates of communicative need from native speakers of English and Chinese. We compared those need distributions to each other and to a corpus-based need distribution, and we assessed the efficiency of the English and Chinese naming systems for the semantic domain of household containers under different need distributions. Our results suggest that languages reflect culture-specific need patterns, and that subjective estimates are sometimes superior to corpus data as a measure of need.

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