Colexification and communicative need in lexical evolution

Andres Karjus, Richard Blythe, Simon Kirby, Tianyu Wang and Kenny Smith

Colexification refers to the phenomenon of multiple meanings sharing one word in a language. Cross-linguistic lexification patterns have been shown to be largely predictable. We conduct a number of artificial language experiments to test a recent proposal that beyond general similarity-based tendencies, communicative needs play an important role in shaping colexification dynamics.
In a recent study based on a large sample of colexifications from a database of about 250 languages, Xu et al. (2020) demonstrate that similar and associated senses (like FIRE and FLAME are more frequently colexified than unrelated or weakly associated meanings (like FIRE and SALT for example), suggesting that this provides an important constraint on the evolution of lexicons. They also put forward a hypothesis that beyond the tendency of colexification of similar senses, language and culture specific communicative needs should be expected to affect the likelihood of colexification of similar concepts – such as SISTER and BROTHER, or ICE and SNOW – if it is necessary for efficient communication to distinguish them (cf. Regier et al. 2016, Kemp et al 2018).
We approach this question by means of human experiments, using a dyadic artificial language communication game paradigm (cf. Winters et al. 2015, Kirby et al. 2015). Our results across four experiments replicate the previous cross-linguistic findings: all other things being equal, speakers do prefer colexifying similar concepts. However, we also find evidence supporting the communicative need hypothesis: when faced with a need to distinguish similar pairs of meanings frequently enough, speakers adjust their colexification preferences to maintain communicative efficiency, and avoid colexifying those similar meanings which need to be distinguished in communication. This research provides further evidence to support the argument that languages are shaped in time and space by the evolving needs and preferences of their speakers.

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