A probabilistic framework for analysing the compositionality of conceptual combinations

Journal of Mathematical Psychology 67:26-38 (2015)
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Conceptual combination performs a fundamental role in creating the broad range of compound phrases utilised in everyday language. This article provides a novel probabilistic framework for assessing whether the semantics of conceptual combinations are compositional, and so can be considered as a function of the semantics of the constituent concepts, or not. While the systematicity and productivity of language provide a strong argument in favor of assuming compositionality, this very assumption is still regularly questioned in both cognitive science and philosophy. Additionally, the principle of semantic compositionality is underspecifi ed, which means that notions of both "strong" and "weak" compositionality appear in the literature. Rather than adjudicating between different grades of compositionality, the framework presented here contributes formal methods for determining a clear dividing line between compositional and non-compositional semantics. In addition, we suggest that the distinction between these is contextually sensitive. Compositionality is equated with a joint probability distribution modeling how the constituent concepts in the combination are interpreted. Marginal selectivity is introduced as a pivotal probabilistic constraint for the application of the Bell/CH and CHSH systems of inequalities. Non-compositionality is equated with a failure of marginal selectivity, or violation of either system of inequalities in the presence of marginal selectivity. This means that the conceptual combination cannot be modeled in a joint probability distribution, the variables of which correspond to how the constituent concepts are being interpreted. The formal analysis methods are demonstrated by applying them to an empirical illustration of twenty-four non-lexicalised conceptual combinations.

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Brentyn Ramm
Murdoch University


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