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

Bill Thompson*, Seán G. Roberts, Gary Lupyan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

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.

Original languageEnglish
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Early online date20 Aug 2020
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 20 Aug 2020

Bibliographical note

The acceptance date for this record is provisional and based upon the month of publication for the article.

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