Usage frequency and lexical class determine the evolution of kinship terms in Indo-European

Péter Rácz, Sam Passmore, Catherine Sheard, Fiona M Jordan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
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Languages do not replace their vocabularies at an even rate: words endure longer if they are used more frequently. This effect, which has parallels in evolutionary biology, has been demonstrated for the core vocabulary, a set of common, unrelated meanings. The extent to which it replicates in closed lexical classes remains to be seen, and may indicate how general this effect is in language change. Here we use phylogenetic comparative methods to investigate the history of 10 kinship categories, a type of closed lexical class of content words, across 47 Indo-European languages. We find that their rate of replacement is correlated with their usage frequency, and this relationship is stronger than in the case of the core vocabulary, even though the envelope of variation is comparable across the two cases. We also find that the residual variation in the rate of replacement of kinship terms is related to genealogical distance of referent to kin. We argue that this relationship is the result of social changes and corresponding shifts in the entire semantic class of kinship terms, shifts typically not present in the core vocabulary. Thus, an understanding of the scope and limits of social change is needed to understand changes in kinship systems, and broader context is necessary to model cultural evolution in particular and the process of system change in general.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages9
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2019


  • cultural evolution
  • language change
  • kinship systems
  • language 38 use


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