VariKin Findings: Frequently-used kinship terms evolve slowly

VariKin Findings: Frequently-used kinship terms evolve slowly

— by Maisie Ford

Language is constantly changing. As new words are born or enter a language, old words fall out of use. Linguists have known for a long time that some words endure longer than others. Some core vocabulary, like numbers, names of common animals/plants, and words for parts of the body can be thousands of years old and still in use. This intuition was put to the test by Mark Pagel, Quentin Atkinson, and Andrew Meade in their 2007 paper, Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Using language corpora (large collections of transcribed speech or collected text), and phylogenetic comparative methods, they found that more frequently used words from the core vocabulary are replaced at a slower rate in European languages.

Image credit: Altrincham Adventures in Art

But why is this? Do often-used words leave a stronger imprint in our minds and are therefore less likely to be lost? Or is it that large scale conceptual or social changes relating to how we think and talk about the world around us are more likely to displace words that are used less often?

VariKin team members Péter Rácz and Sam Passmore (lead authors), Catherine Sheard and Fiona Jordan explored this very question with kinship words in their open-access paper, “Usage frequency and lexical class determine the evolution of kinship terms in Indo-European”, published in Royal Society Open Science in October 2019.

Péter collected large-scale language corpora across 47 Indo-European languages, so as to determine the frequency of use of terms for family and kin. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, Sam modelled how fast kinship words are replaced in these languages. Kinship terms are not just single linguistic labels for individuals, because multiple relatives can be called by the same term such as “cousin” in English, or “tante” (aunt, in French). Kin terms form systems, and multiple terms shift together when one system is replaced with another one through social or cultural changes. VariKin team members explore this aspect in some of their other papers:

Image credit: Altrincham Adventures in Art

In the present paper, the team found that, as with core vocabulary, the most frequently used kinship terms are replaced more slowly over time. In fact, the relationship between rate of replacement and frequency of use was found to be even stronger in kinship terminology than in core vocabulary in general. This is hypothesised to be due to the fact that kinship words, in every language, constitute a closed lexical class, which suggests that the reason more frequent words are more resilient is not that they are more memorable. Rather it is that they are less likely to be affected by complex conceptual changes in language. Terms for ‘mother’ or ‘father’ last for thousands of years!

The findings shed further light on how language change is related to language use.  It also adds to what we know about the ways in which evolutionary parallels exist in biology and culture (we know that genes involved in multiple functions change more slowly), and informs debates on dynamics of change in linguistics and complex systems theory in general.

Watch this space for an interview coming soon with Péter Rácz and Sam Passmore in which we discuss this paper further. We will be posting these summaries of papers from the VariKin project over the next few months as the project winds up.

2019 excd lab Review and Journal Round-Up

Each week, the excd lab take turns to offer journal articles for discussion, or even present our own research.  

August Away Day walk from Botanical Gardens to Leigh Woods

In 2019 Journal Club members enjoyed the company of regular guests Dr Dan Smith, Dr Kit Opie, Dr Catherine Sheard (Biology) and undergrad, Jasmine Calladine. We also welcomed new guests: Philosophy PhD students Shaun Stanley and Arsham Nejad Kourki, visiting Professor Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Anthropology PhD student Arif Jamal and Biology PhD student Gareth Coleman. 

We bid a sad farewell (for now) to core members, Dr Alice Mitchell, now a Junior Professor in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Cologne, and Dr Seán Roberts who became a Lecturer in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University.

Later in the year, we welcomed excd Research AssociateDr Terhi Honkola (University of Turku) to the team; and hosted a fascinating presentation from visiting researcher, Brea McCauley (Simon Fraser University, Canada) on archaeological and anthropological perspectives of finger amputation rituals.

Our continuing interdisciplinary nature means we get to explore and discuss a great range of articles together. 


Here’s a round-up of 2019’s offerings: 

Spolaore, E. & Wacziarg, R. (2013) How Deep Are the Roots of Economic Development? Journal of Economic Literature 51(2): 325–369, (June 2013) 

Ball, C.  (2018) Language of Kin Relations and Relationlessness Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 47:47-60, (August 20 2018) 

Jakiela, P. & Ozier, O. (2018) Gendered Language World Bank Group, Development Economics, Policy Research Working Paper 8464 (June 2018) 

Schulz, J., Bahrami-Rad, D., Beauchamp, J. & Henrich, J. The Origins of WEIRD Psychology SSRN (June 22, 2018).   

House, B.R. (2017) How do social norms influence prosocial development? Current Opinion in Psychology Vol. 20: 87-91 

Fortunato, L. (2019) Lineal kinship organisation in cross-specific perspective SocArXiv, March 15 2019 

Tamariz, M. (2019) Replication and emergence in cultural transmission Physics of Life Reviews Vol. 30: 47-71, (October 2-19) 

Mesoudi, A. (2017) Pursuing Darwin’s curious parallel: Prospects for a science of cultural evolution PNAS Vol. 114(30): 7853-7860 (July 25 2017) 

Daly, M. & Perry, G. (2019) Grandmaternal childcare and kinship laterality. Is rural Greece exceptional? Evolution and Human Behaviour Vol. 40(4): 385-394, (July 2019) 

Griesser, M. & Suzuki, T.N. (2016) Kinship modulates the attention of naïve individuals to the mobbing behaviour of role models Animal Behaviour Vol. 112: 83-91 (February 2016) 

Cuskley, C. (2019) Alien forms for alien language: investigating novel form spaces in cultural evolutioPalgrave Communications Vol. 5(87), (August 6 2019) 

Vettese, T. (2019) Sexism in the Academy: Women’s narrowing path to tenure Head Case Issue 34, Spring 2019 

Gray, R.D., Greenhill, S.J., Ross R.M. (2007) The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinizing Culture (with Phylogenies) Biological Theory Vol. 2: 360-375 (March 20 2015) 

Power, E.A. & Ready, E. (2019) Cooperation beyond consanguinity: post-marital residence, delineations of kin and social support among South Indian Tamils Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, 374(1780)(July 15 2019) 

Everett, C., Blasí, D.E., S.G. Roberts (2016) Language evolution and climate: the case of desiccation and tone, Journal of Language Evolution, Vol 1(1)33–46(February 19 2016) 

New academic year, new job

This week I started my new position as a Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Bristol. I’m in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology (which is quite a mouthful when you’re introducing yourself!). Very happy to be here, “here” being the UK, Bristol, and in a department not too dissimilar to the one where I was an undergraduate (at the University of Auckland), doing the closest to four-field anthropology that the UK currently has. Head of Subject Alex Bentley has dubbed this “Big-A Anthropology”.

This year I’ll be teaching Intro to Social Anthropology, and a third-year survey course in Advanced Issues in Arch & Anth. In the years to come I’ll be adding courses on kinship, linguistic anthropology, and interdisciplinary perspectives on the Pacific.

Upcoming talk: Coevolution in counting and culture

I’m giving a talk tomorrow (Tues 21 Feb) at the University of Bath, for the AI folk in the computer sciences department. My thanks to Joanna Bryson for being adventurous and inviting an anthropologist to speak to CompSci folk!

Counting coconuts for the chief: coevolution in language and culture

Across the world, languages vary in their ways of enumeration. Some languages, but not others, have dedicated linguistic mechanisms for counting certain objects and/or large numbers. Numeral classifiers are words or affixes to nouns that are used for counting certain classes of objects, such as “animate things” or “coconuts”. Specific counting systems go a step further and count specific classes of objects by units greater than one, such as (e.g.) pairs or twenties. Examining Oceanic languages, Bender and Beller have advanced the idea that numeral classifiers and specific counting systems are object-specific, refer to culturally-salient semantic domains, and are often used to enumerate large quantities. Here we test their hypothesis that these linguistic features may have co-evolved with aspects of socioecology, specifically, norms of redistribution such as chiefly tribute that are found in socially stratified societies. We use comparative data across a sample of Austronesian ethnolinguistic groups, lexical phylogenies of these languages as a model of population history, and statistical methods from evolutionary biology to (a) reconstruct the most likely model of history of counting systems and social structure and (b) test for causal co-evolutionary processes. Using phylogenetic approaches not only allows us to control for Galton’s Problem but allows us to test these language-culture coevolutionary hypotheses in a framework that delivers estimates of the processes of cultural change. These results speak to broader issues regarding the flexibility of human numerical cognition, as well as shed light on the specific development of counting systems within the Austronesian cultural context.

Details here.

Academic Travel 2: Getting There and Being There

This is part two in a series about what has worked for me during a year of busy academic travelling.

The First Great Western trains in the UK now have in-seat entertainment!

Part 2: Getting There and Being There.
In this post I’m going to cover plane (and train) travel, exploiting your accommodation, and your “kit”.

For the previous post: Part 1:  Preparing For The Trip.
[Updated 23/10/2011]

1. Don’t Write Your Talk on the Plane Mrs Jones

While it’s true that you can get a surprising amount of work done while sat in your seat at ten thousand metres up, the nature of that work should ideally never be the talk you’re about to give. Two reasons:

1. Your laptop can and will fail. This happened to me twice this summer: once at the very beginning of the trip, and once halfway through the conference but before I gave my talk. Both times my talk was done and safely saved to my Dropbox (more on that later), and it turned what could have been an absolute disaster into just a small annoyance.

2. Travel is stressful and unpredictable enough without leaving writing your talk until that 2/5/8/13 hour journey. And it doesn’t matter how long the journey, you really only have the battery life of your computer to get it done. You could be using that time to strategise your conference networking, reading papers to flesh out the fine points of your arguments, or watching a Drew Barrymore comedy on a tiny screen.

Continue reading →

Academic Travel 1: Preparing for the Trip

JR ticket from Osaka Umeda to Kansai Airport. The exit gate machines swallow your ticket so I took pictures of each one as I went in order to claim them on expenses.

This year I’ve been travelling a lot for work. It’s been deliberate — I decided that being mid-contract, 2011 was my best year to do all the conferences, talks, workshops, and courses (as both teacher and student) as I possibly could. Getting into the groove of semi-constant travelling, and getting into a routine that meant I wasn’t constantly forgetting my passport or being too jetlagged to remember my name, has been a learning experience. So I thought I’d blog about what has worked for me. I seem to have a lot to say on this topic so this’ll be a series, the first of which is Preparing For The Trip. There’s a lot of generic travel advice in this first bit, but I hope that’s useful too.

In this post I introduce you to:

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheets of Planning and Packing
2. The Delights of Two Pieces of Good Luggage, or, Why I Don’t Admire You and Your One-Bag
3. Packing So Hardcore Even My Naval Dad Was Impressed
UPDATED 23/10/2011

1. The Amazing Conference Spreadsheet

One of the delights of being an academic is the multitude of transferable skills one has to have (*insert wry grin*), including those of travel agent and event planner. This got a lot easier for me once I came up with the Amazing Conference Spreadsheet (ACS). This is a GoogleDoc spreadsheet with two parts.

The first is a PLANNER where every event, including potential and unconfirmed events, has a column in which I list the details of, and check off, various steps such as “enter business trip request form”, “book hotel”, “submit conference registration form”, “check out location on Streetview”, etc. I can look at this and at a glance see the things that are outstanding for a given trip. I also use it for keeping track of advances, and expenses on the go.

The second is a PACKING CHECKLIST tailored to business travel and includes things like “video cable connector for Mac”, “map of venue”, and “business cards”, but also includes each item I individually take, rather than a generic catchall like “Toiletries” or “Shoes”. If you, like me, are the kind of person who remembers the toothbrush but not the toothpaste, then this level of detail could work for you too. People often think I am organised. I’m not. I just have good coping strategies.

I’m more than happy to share a copy of these if anyone wants one, just let me know.
Continue reading →

An ethnography of grant review

Over the last couple of weekend lunches I’ve read Michéle Lamont’s  How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Here’s the (slightly hype-y) blurb from Harvard University Press:

Excellence. Originality. Intelligence. Everyone in academia stresses quality. But what exactly is it, and how do professors identify it? In the academic evaluation system known as “peer review,” highly respected professors pass judgment, usually confidentially, on the work of others. But only those present in the deliberative chambers know exactly what is said. Michèle Lamont observed deliberations for fellowships and research grants, and interviewed panel members at length. In How Professors Think, she reveals what she discovered about this secretive, powerful, peculiar world.

I think “peculiar” is the most apt of the adjectives in that last sentence, because Lamont didn’t really address the interface between the grant-review process and the outcomes – it was more concerned with the processes of deliberation and the construction of norms of quality that go on. A really interesting read, particularly if you are US-based social scientist (the “study population”). I found myself itching to know more about the cultural differences that might occur, between for example the US, the UK, and Europe; or between the social sciences as construed in the book (from economics to English literature) and the behavioural and life sciences (psychology, biological anthropology, biology). But those are interests motivated by my own disciplinary and geographic situation.

I took two things away from the book: the first, Lamont’s message that quality/excellence are a bit ineffable, but that in general people “know it when they see it”, regardless of disciplinary background. The second was that there are two levels of the process that the applicant has no control over: the  mix of people and perspectives on a grant review committee, and the alchemy of how they reach their decisions about what is quality and deserves to be funded and what is not. These seem to be almost completely unpredictable, and would encourage me, if a grant proposal were rejected somewhere or sometime, to resubmit it elsewhere.

The book is very readable, with a great mix of synthetic commentary and verbatim quotes from the reviewer participants. Gave me a real insight into the decision-making criteria used by more interpretive disciplines/individuals, too.

Note: have been travelling and busy, but a return to regular postings next week. Starter for 10 will go monthly from now on, too.

Starter for 10: Rod Page

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

I’m very excited that this week’s interview is with Professor Rod Page, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow – although see the answer to the second question for what he really does. I met Rod when I was doing my masters on language evolution, and his immensely useful software methods and textbooks made my phylogenetics learning curve much less steep than it could have been! Basically, if it combines computing and evolution, Rod has already thought about it, mashed it up, made it available on iPhylo and Twittered about it before you had your breakfast.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?


2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I’m interested in joining the dots. It drives me nuts that we have all this information about the phylogeny, geographic distribution, and taxonomy of organisms and we can’t quite seem to bring it all together in one place. Think of it as Google for systematics.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

I ended up in biology because it felt that you could still discover things without requiring lots of money or equipment. For instance, my first paper described a new species of pea crab that I found in Auckland harbour. Then I discovered the joys of programming, which is addictive because you regularly feel like master of the universe … at least for a few seconds. But perhaps the thing which grabbed me most as a graduate student was biogeography. New Zealand in the late 80’s was a hot bed of panbiogeography, with Leon Croizat’s work being rediscovered, and it was an exciting time. The wheels rather came off panbiogeography, but being in New Zealand felt like being in the centre of things.

4. And why are you trying to forget about lice? You say so on your old webpage …

Lice have been good to me, but empirical work is hard! All the tracking down collectors, storing specimens, keeping track of data, difficulties sequencing decent genes, struggling to align what sequences we did get, making sense of ropey trees at the end. Methodology is much more fun, especially for somebody like me who is easily distracted by shiny baubles.

5. Do you have a favourite quirky academic paper? Mine is the one about the homosexual necrophiliac duck.

I don’t have a paper, but the “Chicken chicken chicken” talk is a favourite. I show this to undergraduates in tutorials about how to give talks.

6. Professor-level-question: what three things are strikingly different in your field now from when you first started out?

Dub dub dub (WWW). It’s changed everything. That and large scale sequencing. Put another way, biology has become overwhelmingly digital. Some parts of biology have been quicker to adjust to this than than others. [FJ: *sigh* the revolution is still to come in anthropology and linguistics]

7. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

Design book covers.

8. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?

Isadore Nabi [FJ: I think I will start calling myself an “Intrepid Investigator” too]

9. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Rather than pick something specific, I worry that there’s a poor correlation between amount of money thrown at a subject and the amount of progress made. Results don’t scale linearly with money. I’m underwhelmed by “big science” approaches in biodiversity.

10. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

Book: “Envisioning Information” by Edward Tufte ISBN 978-0961392116 – Perhaps not strictly “pop-science”, but just an awesome book, both visually and intellectually. [FJ: EVERYONE should read Tufte]

Philosophy: “The Gentle Art of Philosophical Polemics” by Joseph Agassi ISBN 978-0912050638 – Fierce criticism as a mark of respect, makes me feel good about saying “well this sucks” all the time. [FJ: This arrived in my pigeonhole today, looking forward to it!]

Poem: Robert Burns Tam o’ Shanter “Nursing her wrath to keep it warm” – glorious line.

Although Rod’s disciplinary interests are firmly within biology, much of what he blogs about at iPhylo has crossover appeal – at the moment he’s reviewing iPad apps for reading scientific articles.

Starter for 10: Disa Sauter

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This week’s interview is with Dr Disa Sauter, who works three doors down from me at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Disa and I both did PhDs at UCL in London, but it took us moving to the Netherlands to bump into one another!

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
I’m actually a little stumped by this every time – you’d think I’d have decided on a word to summarize what I do by now! So I alternate between researcher, scientist, and psychologist.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I work on emotions and the ways that we communicate to others how we feel using facial expressions and vocalisations. I’m especially interested in whether emotions and expressions are the same or different depending on people’s cultural backgrounds. [FJ: Disa has done field work with the Himba people in Namibia, and is currently working with a Mayan group in Mexico]

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?
I was always interested in the human mind, but torn between philosophy of mind and psychology. Having done my final year school project in philosophy, I decided to focus on psychology instead… Doing a PhD on emotions with Sophie Scott at UCL made me want to continue in research for as long as I can.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In a study published earlier this year, me and my colleagues showed that some sounds that we make to express emotions, like growls and sobs, are shared by people with dramatically different cultural backgrounds, suggesting that they are part of the common human heritage. But while quite a few negative emotions were signalled in the same way across the groups, the sounds used to express many positive emotions were different – the exception to this was laughter, which had the same meaning across cultures.
5. I hear you’re Swedish. In the interests of cultural understanding, tell me something about Swedish language or culture that  doesn’t really have an English equivalent.
‘Lagom’ is a Swedish word and concept that doesn’t have a good equivalent in other languages. The best translation I think would be ‘just right’, like for example neither too much nor too little – but it can be applied in pretty much any domain, size, temperature, satiation etc. Unlike ‘perfekt’ (perfect), ‘lagom’ is not particularly celebratory, it’s more a matter-of-fact statement, which is what makes it so Swedish. [FJ: this brilliant word has its own wikipedia entry, it’s so useful]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

I’d be an apprentice in the kitchen of a fancy vegetarian restaurant. [FJ: Mmmm, good choice with the transferable skills!]
7. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?
The neural correlates of poorly understood and badly operationalized psychological phenomena.
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
c) The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
Dexter Morgan. [FJ: I am hiding the sharp objects in the canteen]
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
I submitted a paper and started revising another.
Disa’s publications and research interests are listed at her website, including a recent review of positive emotions and how they’re a bit more complex than just “happy”. The media covered her cross-cultural emotion work earlier this year, you can see some of the write-ups here and here.

Starter for 10: Simon Greenhill

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 will be a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.
I’m starting off with my friend and colleague Dr Simon Greenhill, from the University of Auckland.
1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”
I study how languages and cultures evolve using computational methods drawn from evolutionary biology.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

I guess I’d always been interested in languages – I took French, German and Latin at school (the first two reasonably successfully, the latter rather abysmally). At university I intended to get a degree in computer science, but quickly decided I didn’t want to be spending my life doing tech support. At that time I’d discovered how awesome evolutionary biology was and I moved over to biology/psychology and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I ended up taking a course on Evolution, Behavior and Cognition (where a certain young Ms. Jordan was my lab instructor) [FJ notes: Simon is the original skeptic and raised my game!] and I loved every minute of it. I eventually harassed Russell Gray enough so that he had to take me on as a student. It’s all been downhill since there.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In 2009 Russell Gray, Alexei Drummond and I published a paper where we tested different models of Pacific settlement. We showed that the Pacific was settled relatively recently – beginning around 5,200 years ago from Taiwan. The cool thing we discovered there was that we could really nuance our understanding of prehistory by identifying patterns of expansion pulses and settlement pauses, and estimating the timing of these events.
5. What’s the geekiest thing you know how to do?
I cured my addiction to sudoku by writing a program to solve the damn things. [FJ: !!!! ]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?
Software development.
7. What’s your favourite dinosaur?
You can’t beat Tyrannosaurus rex, although I do have a soft-spot for Opabinia regalis (non-dino, I know).
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s not perfect, but epic in scale and full of interesting, and very testable ideas.
b) David Hull’s “Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science“. This is an excellent account of how modern systematic biology developed in the 1970s-1980s. Hull describes the major players in the field, how their influences rise and fall over time, and the infighting and squabbling that occurred (the debate between phylogeneticists and cladists is infamously vicious). All in all,  the book is a wonderful example of philosophy/history of science. [FJ: This is indeed a marvellous book, full of scientists being totally human]
c) Preludes by T.S. Eliott, but Evolution by Langdon Smith is probably more appropriate for this blog.
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
My two main achievements yesterday were reviewing a paper, and implementing an XML generator for certain BEAST analyses.
You can find out more about Simon’s research and projects at his (rather beautifully designed) website, which has links to the outstanding Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. One of his very cool on-the-side projects is HENRY, The Human Evolution News RelaY.