Terry Regier, (Cognition & Language Workshop, UC Berkeley, Linguistics and Cognitive Science)
Semantic Typology and the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in Computational Perspective
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.