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Valence-dependent mutation in lexical evolution


A central goal of linguistics is to understand how words evolve. Past research has found that macro-level factors such as frequency of word usage and population size explain the pace of lexical evolution. Here we focus on cognitive and affective factors, testing whether valence (positivity–negativity) explains lexical evolution rates. Using estimates of cognate replacement rates for 200 concepts on an Indo-European language tree spanning six to ten millennia, we find that negative valence correlates with faster cognate replacement. This association holds when controlling for frequency of use, and follow-up analyses show that it is most robust for adjectives (‘dirty’ versus ‘clean’; ‘bad’ versus ‘good’); it does not consistently reach statistical significance for verbs, and never reaches significance for nouns. We also present experiments showing that individuals are more likely to replace words for negative versus positive concepts. Our findings suggest that emotional valence affects micro-level guided variation, which drives macro-level valence-dependent mutation in adjectives.

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Fig. 1: The relationship between semantic valence and cognate replacement rate in four Indo-European languages.
Fig. 2: The meta-analytic relationship between valence and cognate replacement rate for different parts of speech.
Fig. 3: The relationship between population-level cognate replacement and individual-level word replacement.

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J.W. thanks the Marsden Foundation of New Zealand (19-UOO-1932) for funding. The Marsden foundation played no role in the conceptualization, design, analysis or decision to publish this research. The authors thank I. Khismatova for research assistance.

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J.C.J. conceptualized the study, analysed the data and co-wrote the manuscript. K.L. co-wrote the manuscript. R.D. collected the data. Q.A. co-wrote the manuscript. J.W. conceptualized the study and co-wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joshua Conrad Jackson.

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Jackson, J.C., Lindquist, K., Drabble, R. et al. Valence-dependent mutation in lexical evolution. Nat Hum Behav 7, 190–199 (2023).

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