Semantic categories of artifacts and animals reflect efficient coding

TitleSemantic categories of artifacts and animals reflect efficient coding
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of PublicationIn Press
AuthorsZaslavsky, N., Regier T., Tishby N., & Kemp C.
Published inProceedings of the 41st Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society
Keywordscategories, Information theory, language evolution, semantic typology

It has been argued that semantic categories across languages reflect pressure for efficient communication. Recently, this idea has been cast in terms of a general information-theoretic principle of efficiency, the Information Bottleneck (IB) principle, and it has been shown that this principle accounts for the emergence and evolution of named color categories across languages, including soft structure and patterns of inconsistent naming. However, it is not yet clear to what extent this account generalizes to semantic domains other than color. Here we show that it generalizes to two qualitatively different semantic domains: names for containers, and for animals. First,we show that container naming in Dutch and French is nearoptimal in the IB sense, and that IB broadly accounts for soft categories and inconsistent naming patterns in both languages. Second, we show that a hierarchy of animal categories derived from IB captures cross-linguistic tendencies in the growth of animal taxonomies. Taken together, these findings suggest that fundamental information-theoretic principles of efficient coding may shape semantic categories across languages and across


We thank Anne White, Gert Storms, and Barbara Malt for making their container naming and sorting data publicly available. The animal features and familiarity data we used were preprocessed by Kemp et al. (2010). We thank Simon De Deyne for initially sharing these data, and for useful discussions. This study was partially supported by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation (N.Z. and N.T.), and by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (N.Z. and T.R.); the content of the study does not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. government, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

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