(ORDO NEWS) — The meanings of words for a person are mainly dictated by the peculiarities of culture, history and geography in which the language was formed. That is, one word cannot have one true inherent meaning. This is the conclusion reached by researchers at Princeton University, who first studied dozens of languages using machine learning methods, reports Phys.org.
“Even everyday words that seem to have the same meaning have variability,” said William Thompson, a computer scientist at Princeton and one of the study’s lead authors. “We received the first evidence based on data that our perception of the world through words is part of the cultural heritage.”
Language is a prism through which we get an understanding of the world around us and comprehend it. It used to take several years to learn a set of texts with a native speaker of two languages at the same time. Now the life of scientists has been simplified by algorithms. The authors analyzed 1000 words in 41 languages.
Instead of defining each word, the system uses a large-scale method of “semantic associations”, that is, words that are close to each other. For example, English beautiful is semantically related to colorful, love, precious, and delicate.
The researchers’ algorithm analyzed millions of semantic connections: it translated the associations of one word into another language, and then repeated the process in the opposite direction. The final score for the similarity of word meanings was derived from a quantitative assessment of how closely the meaning of the word was preserved when translated in two directions.
The results showed that there are almost universal words, primarily numbers, professions, measures, dates, and kinship designations. However, the meanings of many other words for animals, food, and emotions, for example, converged much less frequently.
At the last stage of the work, the authors applied a different algorithm that compared how similar cultures are using two different languages. The system is based on an anthropological dataset and relies on things like marriage practices, the legal system, and the political order in a society of native speakers.
Thus, the researchers found that their algorithm, based on the similarity of cultures, can correctly predict how easy it is to translate two languages. Scientists believe that the variability in the meaning of words is not just random. Culture plays an important role in the formation of languages - previously, scientists lacked quantitative data to support this hypothesis.
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