Northwestern University

Wed 12:00 PM

WED@NICO SEMINAR: Hyejin Youn, Northwestern University "Lost and Found in Translation: the Universal Structure of Human Lexical Semantics"

Hyejin Youn

When: Wednesday, January 24, 2018
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM  

Where: Chambers Hall, Lower Level, 600 Foster St, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: Free

Contact: Yasmeen Khan   847.491.2527

Group: Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO)

Category: Academic

More Info



Hyejin Youn, Assistant Professor, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University


Lost and Found in Translation: the Universal Structure of Human Lexical Semantics


How universal is human conceptual structure? The way concepts are organised in the human brain may reflect distinct features of cultural, historical, and environmental background in addition to properties universal to human cognition. Semantics, or meaning expressed through language, provides direct access to the underlying conceptual structure, but meaning is notoriously difficult to measure, let alone parameterise. Using cross-linguistic dictionaries, we provide here an empirical measure of semantic proximity between concepts and analyse the structure of a network derived from it. Across languages carefully selected from a phylogenetically and geographically stratified sample of genera, translations of words reveal cases where a particular language uses a single polysemous word to express concepts represented by distinct words in another. We use the frequency of polysemy linking two concepts as a measure of their semantic proximity, and represent the pattern of such linkages by a weighted network. This network is highly uneven and fragmented: certain concepts are far more prone to polysemy than others, and there emerge naturally interpretable clusters that are loosely connected to each other. Furthermore, the networks of different language groups exhibit consistent structures, largely independent of geography, environment, and literacy. We therefore conclude the conceptual structure connecting basic vocabulary studied is primarily due to universal features of human cognition and language use.

Speaker Bio:

Hyejin Youn is an assistant professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO). Before joining Kellogg, she was a research fellow at Santa Fe Institute and Harvard Kennedy School, and a visiting scientist at MIT Media Lab. Her research aims to develop a mathematical and computational framework to understand complex systems.

Further Reading:

Please visit Professor Youn's project page or read her 2016 PNAS Article for more information on this topic.

About the Speaker Series:

Wednesdays@NICO is a vibrant weekly seminar series focusing broadly on the topics of complex systems and data science. It brings together attendees ranging from graduate students to senior faculty who span all of the schools across Northwestern, from applied math to sociology to biology and every discipline in-between. 

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