The universal structure of language

Semantics is the study of meaning as expressed through language, and it provides indirect access to an underlying level of conceptual structure. However, to what degree this conceptual structure is universal or is due to cultural histories, or to the environment inhabited by a speech community, is still controversial. Meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterise, for quantitative comparative studies.

Using cross-linguistic dictionaries across languages carefully selected as an unbiased sample reflecting the diversity of human languages, Oxford Mathematician Hyejin Youn and colleagues provide an empirical measure of semantic relatedness between concepts. Their analysis uncovers a universal structure underlying the sampled vocabulary across language groups independent of their evolutionary phylogenetic (evolutionary) relations, their speakers’ culture, and their geographic environment.