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Seminar: Semantic typology and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in computational perspective

Australian National University

Seminar: Semantic typology and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in computational perspective

Speaker: Prof. Terry Regier (UC Berkeley)

When: 22 February, 11.30am-1pm, Room BPB E4.44, Baldessin Building ANU

Abstract:

Why do languages have the semantic categories they do, and what do those categories reveal about cognition and communication?  Word meanings vary widely across languages, yet also exhibit certain cross-language regularities.  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.  

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