The Large-Scale Structure of Semantic Networks: Statistical Analyses and a Model of Semantic Growth


Department of Cognitive Sciences, 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, University of California-Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697-5100; E-mail:

Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139; E-mail:


We present statistical analyses of the large-scale structure of 3 types of semantic networks: word associations, WordNet, and Roget's Thesaurus. We show that they have a small-world structure, characterized by sparse connectivity, short average path lengths between words, and strong local clustering. In addition, the distributions of the number of connections follow power laws that indicate a scale-free pattern of connectivity, with most nodes having relatively few connections joined together through a small number of hubs with many connections. These regularities have also been found in certain other complex natural networks, such as the World Wide Web, but they are not consistent with many conventional models of semantic organization, based on inheritance hierarchies, arbitrarily structured networks, or high-dimensional vector spaces. We propose that these structures reflect the mechanisms by which semantic networks grow. We describe a simple model for semantic growth, in which each new word or concept is connected to an existing network by differentiating the connectivity pattern of an existing node. This model generates appropriate small-world statistics and power-law connectivity distributions, and it also suggests one possible mechanistic basis for the effects of learning history variables (age of acquisition, usage frequency) on behavioral performance in semantic processing tasks.