Crosslinguistic research on domains including kinship, color, folk biology, number, and spatial relations has documented the different ways in which languages carve up the world into named categories. Although word meanings vary widely across languages, unrelated languages often have words with similar or identical meanings, and many logically possible meanings are never observed. We review research suggesting that this pattern of constrained variation is explained in part by the need for words to support efficient communication. This research includes several recent studies that have formalized efficient communication in computational terms and a larger set of studies, both classic and recent, that do not explicitly appeal to efficient communication but are nevertheless consistent with this notion. The efficient communication framework has implications for the relationship between language and culture and for theories of language change, and we draw out some of these connections.


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