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Vision dominates in perceptual language: English sensory vocabulary is optimized for usage


Majid,  Asifa
Center for Language Studies , External Organizations;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;
Research Associates, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Winter, B., Perlman, M., & Majid, A. (2018). Vision dominates in perceptual language: English sensory vocabulary is optimized for usage. Cognition, 179, 213-220. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2018.05.008.

Researchers have suggested that the vocabularies of languages are oriented towards the communicative needs of language users. Here, we provide evidence demonstrating that the higher frequency of visual words in a large variety of English corpora is reflected in greater lexical differentiation—a greater number of unique words—for the visual domain in the English lexicon. In comparison, sensory modalities that are less frequently talked about, particularly taste and smell, show less lexical differentiation. In addition, we show that even though sensory language can be expected to change across historical time and between contexts of use (e.g., spoken language versus fiction), the pattern of visual dominance is a stable property of the English language. Thus, we show that across the board, precisely those semantic domains that are more frequently talked about are also more lexically differentiated, for perceptual experiences. This correlation between type and token frequencies suggests that the sensory lexicon of English is geared towards communicative efficiency.