New research shows universal semantic structures

There is a lot of discussion going on wether some of our concepts are innate or if every concept is learned. Of cause Jerry Fodor always points out that some simple concepts have to be innate to get conceptualization even started.social_network_analysis_visualization

A new study shows that there is a universal structure of human lexical semantics. They used a method of double-translation and semantic networks to measure the proximity of meanings of concepts in 81 different languages. They write:

We propose a principled method to construct semantic networks
linking concepts via polysemous words identified by cross-linguistic
dictionaries. Based on the method, we found overwhelming evidence
that the semantic networks for different groups share a large amount
of structure in common across geographic and cultural differences.
Indeed, our results are consistent with the hypothesis that cultural
and environmental factors have little statistically significant effect on
the semantic network of the subset of basic concepts studied here.

Especially intersting are following points:

  1. The concepts they used for the test where concepts like SUN, MOON, MOUNTAIN, DAY, NIGHT etc. First of all these are the perfect examples for simple concepts, the concepts a theory like Fodors Language of Thought Hypotheses needs.
  2. It is very easy and imaginable to tell a story of evolutionary selection why exactly this concepts are universal. In the beginning of human life and in the evolution of other species it is pretty nice to represent features of your environment.
  3. This are concepts you expect to be at least dependent on the georgraphical region where the language occurs. Maybe the concepts like MOUNTAIN are more important when you life in the Hymalaja then when you life in a region of plains. But the study shows that the universal semantic structure is not dependent on any geographical or cultural influence.

Of cause we can study concepts only indirect by looking at language. And the authors recognise this problem. That is why they try to provide a quantitative method to compare meanings of concepts. This study at least makes it plausible that some of our concepts are just universal and innate.

You can find the paper of the study here.


  1. Sun, moon, mountains, day and night are to be found in most environments on earth. If most languages have words for these, that might point to a shared innate cognitive structure, but can also be a result of these things being present everywhere. They are universal parts of our natural environment. So these authors might just find what they want to find. Language universals, on the other hand, should be features or language that could be different but are always the same, even if there is nothing in the environment or in the process of communication that motivates them, and they should not be explainable as results of either genetic relationship of the languages (i.e. being inherited from a comon ancestor language) or results of contact (regional features).


    1. The study is not about words but about concepts or meanings if you like. They map meanings an weigh the connections between the concepts that are involved. (This method is discribed in the paper) So it is not about every language have word for the sun but about the connections of the meanings for example between sun and heat etc. And the result is that there is a significant clustering of meanings even though there are different words in different languages. And even though some regions will have different features of environment and though the speakers are more fimilar for example with a concept of a mountain as of the sea the weightings of connections between the concepts is not significantly different.

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