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Cultural influences on word meanings revealed through large-scale semantic alignment

Abstract

If the structure of language vocabularies mirrors the structure of natural divisions that are universally perceived, then the meanings of words in different languages should closely align. By contrast, if shared word meanings are a product of shared culture, history and geography, they may differ between languages in substantial but predictable ways. Here, we analysed the semantic neighbourhoods of 1,010 meanings in 41 languages. The most-aligned words were from semantic domains with high internal structure (number, quantity and kinship). Words denoting natural kinds, common actions and artefacts aligned much less well. Languages that are more geographically proximate, more historically related and/or spoken by more-similar cultures had more aligned word meanings. These results provide evidence that the meanings of common words vary in ways that reflect the culture, history and geography of their users.

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Fig. 1: High alignment between English (‘Tuesday’) and Danish (‘Tirsdag’).
Fig. 2: Low alignment between English (‘beautiful’) and French (‘beau’).
Fig. 3: Semantic alignment of 21 semantic domains.
Fig. 4: Semantic alignment of number words.
Fig. 5: Semantic alignment by part of speech.
Fig. 6: Semantic distances for Indo-European languages.

Data availability

Data and reproducible analyses are available at https://osf.io/tngba/.

Code availability

Code to implement the alignment algorithm is available at https://osf.io/tngba/.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Dellert and A. Majid. B.T. and G.L. acknowledge support from LEVINSON fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. S.G.R. was partially supported by a Leverhulme early career fellowship (ECF-2016-435). G.L. was partially supported by NSF-PAC 1734260. The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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B.T., S.G.R. and G.L. designed the research, collected and analysed data, and contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

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Thompson, B., Roberts, S.G. & Lupyan, G. Cultural influences on word meanings revealed through large-scale semantic alignment. Nat Hum Behav 4, 1029–1038 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0924-8

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