Reshared post from Betsy McCall

Linguistic categories are computationally optimal

For the study, Kemp and Regier used data previously collected by anthropologists and linguists that specify kinship categories for 566 of the world's languages. Kemp and Regier used a computational analysis to explore why some patterns are found in the data set but others are not. In particular, they tested the idea that the world's kinship systems achieve a trade-off between the two competing principles of simplicity and informativeness.

"The kinship systems that are used by languages lie along an optimal frontier, where systems achieve a near perfect trade-off between the competing factors of simplicity and usefulness," Kemp said. "English — with two terms to refer to grandparents — is more simple than Mandarin Chinese, but arguably a little less useful."

"Interestingly, very similar principles explain cross-language variation in color categories and spatial categories, as well as kinship categories," said Regier, associate professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Berkeley, and an author on the earlier work on color and space. "It's rewarding to see similar principles operating across such different domains."_______________

Language is a high-level cognitive and social phenomena that, when left to its own devices, tends to result in optimal solutions. You can literally throw a bunch of untrained infants into a social context where the adults speak a variety of different languages and don't fully understand each other, and if you let those kids play together they will tend to spontaneously form new, grammatically sophisticated language that unifies and remixes all the old languages in completely novel ways.

In contrast, artificially created and imposed languages (like Esperanto) almost never get picked up as a mother tongue, and children tend to do poorly with them.

I would suggest that other kinds of high-level cognitive phenomena (like, say, planning ahead, or distributing resources, or dividing labor) are also best left to the self-organized solutions derived by the people left to their own devices, instead of imposing an artificial organizational structure.

Betsy McCall originally shared this post:

Categories for kinship vary between languages

Different languages refer to family relationships in different ways. For example, English speakers use two terms — grandmother and grandfather — to refer to grandparents, while Mandarin Chinese uses…

1 Comment

  1. Many ill-informed people describe Esperanto as “failed” – others say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. Now that the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.

    During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added to its prestigious list of 64 languages.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a living language – see

    Their online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per month. That can’t be bad :)

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