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How do we use language? Shared patterns in the frequency of word use across 17 world languages

By Andreea S. Calude and Mark Pagel


We present data from 17 languages on the frequency with which a common set of words is used in everyday language. The languages are drawn from six language families representing 65 per cent of the world's 7000 languages. Our data were collected from linguistic corpora that record frequencies of use for the 200 meanings in the widely used Swadesh fundamental vocabulary. Our interest is to assess evidence for shared patterns of language use around the world, and for the relationship of language use to rates of lexical replacement, defined as the replacement of a word by a new unrelated or non-cognate word. Frequencies of use for words in the Swadesh list range from just a few per million words of speech to 191 000 or more. The average inter-correlation among languages in the frequency of use across the 200 words is 0.73 (p < 0.0001). The first principal component of these data accounts for 70 per cent of the variance in frequency of use. Elsewhere, we have shown that frequently used words in the Indo-European languages tend to be more conserved, and that this relationship holds separately for different parts of speech. A regression model combining the principal factor loadings derived from the worldwide sample along with their part of speech predicts 46 per cent of the variance in the rates of lexical replacement in the Indo-European languages. This suggests that Indo-European lexical replacement rates might be broadly representative of worldwide rates of change. Evidence for this speculation comes from using the same factor loadings and part-of-speech categories to predict a word's position in a list of 110 words ranked from slowest to most rapidly evolving among 14 of the world's language families. This regression model accounts for 30 per cent of the variance. Our results point to a remarkable regularity in the way that human speakers use language, and hint that the words for a shared set of meanings have been slowly evolving and others more rapidly evolving throughout human history

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Publisher: The Royal Society
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Provided by: PubMed Central
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