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Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history


Greek speakers say “ουρ”, Germans “schwanz” and the French “queue” to describe what English speakers call a ‘tail’, but all of these languages use a related form of ‘two’ to describe the number after one. Among more than 100 Indo-European languages and dialects, the words for some meanings (such as ‘tail’) evolve rapidly, being expressed across languages by dozens of unrelated words, while others evolve much more slowly—such as the number ‘two’, for which all Indo-European language speakers use the same related word-form1. No general linguistic mechanism has been advanced to explain this striking variation in rates of lexical replacement among meanings. Here we use four large and divergent language corpora (English2, Spanish3, Russian4 and Greek5) and a comparative database of 200 fundamental vocabulary meanings in 87 Indo-European languages6 to show that the frequency with which these words are used in modern language predicts their rate of replacement over thousands of years of Indo-European language evolution. Across all 200 meanings, frequently used words evolve at slower rates and infrequently used words evolve more rapidly. This relationship holds separately and identically across parts of speech for each of the four language corpora, and accounts for approximately 50% of the variation in historical rates of lexical replacement. We propose that the frequency with which specific words are used in everyday language exerts a general and law-like influence on their rates of evolution. Our findings are consistent with social models of word change that emphasize the role of selection, and suggest that owing to the ways that humans use language, some words will evolve slowly and others rapidly across all languages.

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Figure 1: Frequency plots for rates of lexical evolution in Indo-European across 200 fundamental vocabulary meanings.
Figure 2: Distribution of frequency of meaning-use for 200 meanings in four Indo-European languages.
Figure 3: Frequency of meaning-use plotted against estimated rate of lexical evolution for 200 basic meanings in four Indo-European languages.

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We thank R. Gray and S. Greenhill for comments and advice. This research was supported by a grant to M.P. from the Leverhulme Trust.

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Correspondence to Mark Pagel.

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The file contains Supplementary Figures S1 and S2 with Legends, Supplementary Tables S1 and S2, Supplementary Discussion and additional references. file was modified on 19 October 2007 to correct an error in the title of Table S1 (PDF 2280 kb)

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Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q. & Meade, A. Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature 449, 717–720 (2007).

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