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Kinship categories across languages reflect general communicative principles.
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 near-optimal trade-off 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 trade-off between them may provide a domain-general foundation for variation in category systems across languages.