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Distributional Measures of Semantic Abstraction

Sabine Schulte im Walde, Diego Frassinelli

Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence: Language and Computation, 4(796756), 2022.


This article provides an in-depth study of distributional measures for distinguishing between degrees of semantic abstraction. Abstraction is considered a “central construct in cognitive science” (Barsalou, 2003) and a “process of information reduction that allows for efficient storage and retrieval of central knowledge” (Burgoon et al., 2013). Relying on the distributional hypothesis, computational studies have successfully exploited measures of contextual co-occurrence and neighbourhood density to distinguish between conceptual semantic categorisations. So far, these studies have modeled semantic abstraction across lexical-semantic tasks such as ambiguity; diachronic meaning changes; abstractness vs. concreteness; and hypernymy. Yet, the distributional approaches target different conceptual types of semantic relatedness, and as to our knowledge not much attention has been paid to apply, compare or analyse the computational abstraction measures across conceptual tasks. The current article suggests a novel perspective that exploits variants of distributional measures to investigate semantic abstraction in English in terms of the abstract–concrete dichotomy (e.g., glory–banana) and in terms of the generality–specificity distinction (e.g., animal–fish), in order to compare the strengths and weaknesses of the measures regarding categorisations of abstraction, and to determine and investigate conceptual differences. In a series of experiments we identify reliable distributional measures for both instantiations of lexical-semantic abstraction and reach a precision higher than 0.7, but the measures clearly differ for the abstract–concrete vs. abstract–specific distinctions and for nouns vs. verbs. Overall, we identify two groups of measures, (i) frequency and word entropy when distinguishing between more and less abstract words in terms of the generality–specificity distinction, and (ii) neighbourhood density variants (especially target–context diversity) when distinguishing between more and less abstract words in terms of the abstract–concrete dichotomy. We conclude that more general words are used more often and are less surprising than more specific words, and that abstract words establish themselves empirically in semantically more diverse contexts than concrete words. Finally, our experiments once more point out that distributional models of conceptual categorisations need to take word classes and ambiguity into account: results for nouns vs. verbs differ in many respects, and ambiguity hinders fine-tuning empirical observations.



@article{schulteimwalde22_fai, title = {Distributional Measures of Semantic Abstraction}, author = {{Schulte im Walde}, Sabine and Frassinelli, Diego}, year = {2022}, journal = {Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence: Language and Computation}, volume = {4}, number = {796756}, doi = {10.3389/frai.2021.796756} }