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Many Minds

Nov 11, 2020

Today we’ve got another installment in our “behind the paper” format. In case you missed the first iteration, these are 30-minute or so interviews that dig into recent notable papers.

This episode takes on a timeless question: Do concepts differ from one language to the next, or are they basically the same? Maybe you think we already know the answer. You’ve probably heard of cases where one language labels a concept that other languages don’t—the German word schaudenfreude, or the Danish notion of hygge, or, my favorite, the Japan concept of tsundoku.

These examples are fun and get a lot of attention, and they certainly make it clear that there’s at least some variation. But a more provocative possibility is that even everyday words that seem easy to translate—words for concepts like chair, beautiful, or walk—might actually differ considerably from one language to the next. Today I talk to Dr. Bill Thompson, a postdoc at Princeton University in the Department of Computer Science and Dr. Gary Lupyan, a Professor at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Psychology. Along with their co-author Sean Roberts, they published a paper this summer that looks at just this issue, at whether basic words have the same meanings across languages. The paper’s title is: “Cultural influences on word meanings revealed through large-scale semantic alignment.”

We talk about the computational approach they use to quantify the similarity of word meanings. We consider their finding that certain kinds of concepts are more similar across languages than others. We discuss the role of culture in shaping concepts. And we talk a bit about why their paper caused something of a stir online.

I found this to be a really thought-provoking conversation. It circles around one of the deepest questions we can ask about the human mind: Where do our concepts come from? Spoiler: we don’t settle the question once and for all here. But we do throw some light on it—perhaps.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Bill Thompson and Dr. Gary Lupyan. Enjoy!


The paper we discuss is here. A transcript of this episode is available here.


Notes and links

9:20 – A very brief introduction to distributional semantics. A core tenet of such approaches is that “you shall know a word by the company it keeps”—as J. R. Firth famously put it.

16:00 – The Intercontinental Dictionary Series divides the words of the world’s languages into 22 semantic domains. See also this blog post by Sean Roberts, in which he reports the results of a survey the authors did on how translatable people thought words from these domains would be across languages.

22:10 – The D-Place dataset is here.

27:00 – The popular write-up which, when shared on Twitter, caused a bit of a stir.


End-of-show reading recommendations:

Comparing lexicons cross-linguistically, by Asifa Majid

The Conceptual Mind: New Directions in the Study of Concepts, edited by Eric Margolis and Stephen Laurence

Words and the Mind, edited by Barbara Malt and Phillip Wolff

Does vocabulary help structure the mind? by Gary Lupyan and Martin Zettersten


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd ( Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (

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