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Semantic Typology and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Computational Perspective

Terry Regier
University of California, Berkeley
October 12, 2017 -
3:00pm to 4:20pm
Margaret Jacks Hall, Greenberg Room (460-126)

Why do languages have the semantic categories they do, and what do those categories reveal about cognition?  Word meanings vary widely across languages, but this variation is constrained.  I will argue that this pattern reflects a range of language-specific solutions to a universal functional challenge: that of communicating precisely while using minimal cognitive resources. I will present a general computational framework that instantiates this idea, and will show how that framework accounts for cross-language variation in several semantic domains. I will then address the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - the claim that such language-specific categories in turn shape cognition. I will argue that viewing this hypothesis through the lens of probabilistic inference has the potential to resolve two sources of controversy: the challenge this hypothesis apparently poses to the widespread assumption of a universal groundwork for cognition, and the fact that some findings supporting the hypothesis do not always replicate reliably.

Event Type: 
Cognition and Language Workshop