Is kinship back?
Published on 27 May 2012 at 13:31
In the last issue of Science (25 May, 2012), a plea by Stephen Levinson for the study of kinship terminology, and an article by Charles Kemp and Terry Regier making a novel contribution to that study.
Charles Kemp talks about his and Regier's research
Levinson writes: "In 1860, Lewis Henry Morgan heard an Iowa man on a Nebraska reservation describe a small boy as “uncle.” Fascinated, he embarked on lifelong research into the kinship systems of the world’s cultures, which culminated in a typology of kin categories. Work on kinship categories ﬂourished for a hundred years, but then became unfashionable. Yet, kinship is crucial to the transmission of human genes, culture, mores, and assets. Recent studies have begun to reinvigorate the study of kinship categories. … Kinship is a fertile domain in which to ask a question at the heart of the cognitive sciences: Why do humans have the conceptual categories they do? … There are more than 6000 languages, each with a different system of kin classiﬁcation, at least in detail. … What constrains this exuberant diversity of systems?"
"Languages vary in their systems of kinship categories but the scope of possible variation appears to be constrained. Previous accounts of kin classiﬁcation have often emphasized constraints that are speciﬁc to the domain of kinship and are not derived from general principles. Here we propose an account that is founded on two domain-general principles: Good systems of categories are simple, and they enable informative communication. We show computationally that kin classiﬁcation systems in the world’s languages achieve a nearoptimal tradeoff between these two competing principles. We also show that our account explains several speciﬁc constraints on kin classiﬁcation proposed previously. Because the principles of simplicity and informativeness are also relevant to other semantic domains, the tradeoff between them may provide a domain-general foundation for variation in category systems across languages."
It seems to me that Kemp and Regier's 'simplicity' and 'informativeness' taken together play the same role as 'relevance' defined in relevance theory as a negative function of processing efforts and a positive function of cognitive effets, and that their findings are consistent with predicitions following from the theory's 'cognitive principle of relevance'. Be that as it may, this thought-provoking paper may indeed contribute to a new start in work on kinship terminologies, and on categories systems more generally, based on sound pragmatic principles.
PS Of related interest in this issue of Science, an article by Michael C. Frank and Noah D. Goodman entitled "Predicting Pragmatic Reasoning in Language Games"