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)peer-review

61 Citations (Scopus)
634 Downloads (Pure)


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
Pages (from-to)1029–1038(2020)
JournalNature Human Behaviour
Publication statusPublished - 10 Aug 2020

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