Our group investigates meaning in language and cognition across diverse semantic domains and disparate languages. Only humans have a communication system that combines a finite number of meaningless elements (sounds) to a potentially infinite set of meaningful concepts. But where do these meanings come from? According to some scholars, word meanings are largely the same across people, and are shaped in only a limited way by experience. According to others, word meanings vary substantially from culture to culture and every infant must learn a different system. Recent research supports a more nuanced picture than this dichotomy demands. Large-scale cross-cultural comparison reveals little evidence for absolute universals in word meaning, consistent with the cultural relativity view. However, there are striking statistical regularities in how meaning is carved up into words, suggesting that similar perceptual and cognitive constraints are in operation across diverse languages. Our current research focus is on the language of perception, particularly olfaction.
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