An information-theoretic approach to the typology of spatial demonstratives


We explore systems of spatial deictic words (such as ‘here’ and ‘there’) from the perspective of communicative efficiency using typological data from over 200 languages Nintemann et al. (2020). We argue from an information-theoretic perspective that spatial deictic systems balance informativity and complexity in the sense of the Information Bottleneck (Zaslavsky et al., (2018). We find that under an appropriate choice of cost function and need probability over meanings, among all the 21,146 theoretically possible spatial deictic systems, those adopted by real languages lie near an efficient frontier of informativity and complexity. Moreover, we find that the conditions that the need probability and the cost function need to satisfy for this result are consistent with the cognitive science literature on spatial cognition, especially regarding the source– goal asymmetry. We further show that the typological data are better explained by introducing a notion of consistency into the Information Bottleneck framework, which is jointly optimized along with informativity and complexity.

in Cognition 240: 105505 (2023)