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.

New paper on Murrinhpatha children’s understanding of kinship lexicon and grammar (post by Dr Alice Mitchell)

Among the vast number of things children need to learn about language is how to appropriately refer to other people. One way to do this is to use kinship terms—words like ‘great-grandmother’, ‘brother-in-law’, or ‘sister’. The particular set of kinterms a child needs to know will obviously depend on the languages they’re learning to speak.


English-speaking children learn different words for mother and mother’s sister (‘aunt’), while speakers of many other languages learn a single term for these relatives.For example, in Murrinhpatha, a language spoken in Wadeye in Australia’s Northern Territory (see map), the word kale can refer to both mother and mother’s sister, among other relations. How do children figure out who can be grouped together under the label kale? From a broader perspective, how do children learn the kinship-related language used in their community?


A new open-access paper just published in Language, ‘Acquiring the lexicon and grammar of universal kinship’, explores this question in Murrinhpatha. The paper was authored by Joe Blythe (Macquarie University), Jeremiah Tunmuck (Yek Yederr), Alice Mitchell (University of Cologne), and Péter Rácz (Central European University). Alice and Peter joined the project while they were post-docs working on the Varikin project, having met Joe at a kinship workshop held at the MPI for Social Anthropology in Halle, Germany. Joe then visited the EXCD lab in January 2018 as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor. After that their collaboration continued online across distant time zones.


One of the special things about Murrinhpatha kinterms is their ‘universal’ character, by which we mean that almost anyone in the community can be referred to with a kinterm. Working out how to refer to a newly introduced individual involves a kind of mental calculation based on telescoping chains of relatedness: if I know someone is my mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter, I can reduce that down to ‘mother’ and also refer to her as kale.[1] For Murrinhpatha people, information about kinship relations is so important that it’s expressed not just in vocabulary but also in the grammar of their language. In a sentence about two people doing something, part of the verb indicates whether those two people are siblings or not. For example, parraneriwakthadharra means, roughly, ‘They were following’, where it is grammatically specified that ‘they’ refers to two siblings.


Interested in how children learn this kind of kinship-related vocabulary and grammar, Joe designed two tasks: the ‘kinterms’ task, testing understanding of kinterms, and the ‘kintax’ task, testing understanding of the grammatical categories relating to kinship. In the kinterms task, Joe and Jeremiah showed children photos of their own relatives and asked them questions about kinship relations. There were three different types of questions: first, the researchers asked children straightforward questions, in Murrinhpatha, like ‘is this your cousin?’, where the children were expected to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The researchers then went through a new series of photos and asked children what they called the person in each photo. In the third part, children were asked what the person shown in the photo would call them. Other research has shown that young children often struggle to identify who they are from someone else’s perspective, so we expected this part of the task to be the hardest. This vocabulary-oriented task was carried out with 24 children aged between five and sixteen.


Unsurprisingly, older children performed better on this task. We didn’t see any great age-related breakthroughs but rather a gradual improvement in children’s understanding of kinterms. We also found evidence that closer kin are easier for children to classify. This result is fairly intuitive, too, but what is notable here is that children’s learning partly follows culture-specific ideas about the relative ‘closeness’ of kin: children made fewer mistakes labelling a parent’s same-sex sibling than a parent’s opposite-sex sibling. While these two kinship categories can be considered similarly ‘close’ from a genealogical perspective, the language differentiates them, categorising a parent’s same-sex sibling as a parent, while providing a different term for a parent’s opposite-sex sibling. Nonetheless, biological parents were the easiest of all to identify, emphasising the importance of ‘closeness’ for learning kinship concepts, whether defined genealogically, culturally, or experientially. Our results also supported earlier research in other languages that taking someone else’s perspective on kinship relations is cognitively challenging.


The second task targeted participant’s understanding of ‘kintax’. Children saw a brief animation of people doing something, e.g., waving. At the same time they heard a sentence describing the activity, where the verb in the sentence indicated whether the people were siblings or not. Children were then shown two photos of people in the community, one showing siblings and the other non-siblings, and children were asked to choose the appropriate photo (see right for an example slide).


They were also shown slides and heard similar sentences that tested the understanding of number and gender, so these contrasts could be compared to their understanding of siblinghood. Joe and Jeremiah conducted this task with 39 Murrinhpatha speakers ranging in age from five to 40 years old. The most important finding here was that children’s understanding of kinship grammar progresses at similar rates to other grammatical categories like participant gender and number. Based on results from both the tasks, a complex picture emerges in which linguistic categories, general cognitive abilities, cultural practice, and individual experience all play a role in learning kinship vocabulary and grammar.


This new study moves our field forward on several fronts. It presents the first quantitative investigation of the acquisition of an ever-expanding kinship system; it’s the first study to investigate children’s acquisition of kinship-related grammar; and it’s also innovative in the way it tailored the experimental stimuli to each participant’s own family. This design feature meant that responses were not always directly comparable, which in turn restricted the statistical power of our analysis. Nonetheless, our results showed that children build up a gradual understanding of kinship that focuses on their closest relatives and expands to others as they get older. This supports a ‘focal’ theory of kinship terms, where at least some kinship categories are built from central exemplars and then extend to include more peripheral members. While our approach measured what children know, the next step is to explore how children learn kinship terms—a question that will involve more qualitative methods.


As part of my fieldwork with Datooga-speaking children in Tanzania, I’ve been conducting similar studies of children’s understandings of kin terms. Watch this space for updates on more papers addressing this topic.


[1] For the curious, this works via what anthropologists call ‘merging’ principles: a mother’s mother’s sister is classified as a mother’s mother, and a mother’s mother’s daughter is classified as a mother.

Conversation across languages and cultures: Dr Joe Blythe

The past few weeks the lab has hosted Dr Joe Blythe as  Benjamin Meaker Visiting Fellow from the University of Bristol’s Institute for Advanced Studies (thanks IAS!).

Joe’s final event is this evening, and we’re delighted to be hosting his public lecture:

Conversation across languages and cultures: Cross-linguistic perspectives on taking turns to talk.


Thursday 8 February 2018

17:00 – 18.00 & drinks reception

Lecture Theatre 3, Woodland Road Arts Complex

on culture and language [scrapbook]

If it can be shown that culture has an innate form, a series of contours, quite apart from subject-matter of any description whatsoever, we have a something in culture that may serve as a term of comparison with and possibly a means of relating it to language. But until such purely formal patterns of culture are discovered and laid bare, we shall do well to hold the drifts of language and of culture to be non-comparable and unrelated processes.

Sapir (1921) Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.

Polynesian Lexicon Online

I’ve been meaning to pimp this: POLLEX is online! Simon says:

I’d just like to announce that Ross Clark and I have placed the POLLEX (Polynesian lexicon) database online at POLLEX-Online currently contains 55,183 reflexes with 4,746 reconstructions from 68 languages.

An awesome resource for anyone interested in the Pacific, comparative and historical linguistics, and Polynesian culture history. Databases are what will transform linguistics.

blue is not better than white, and metaphor is unhelpful

The blue-beats-white winning bias in judo as reported in 2006 appears to have been confounded by a number of factors, and there is no bias after all. So say Dijkstra & Preenen in Proceedings B:

A study by Rowe et al. reported a winning bias for judo athletes wearing a blue outfit relative to those wearing a white one during the 2004 Olympics. It was suggested that blue is associated with a higher likelihood of winning through differential effects of colour on opponent visibility and/or an intimidating effect on the opponent. However, we argue that there is no colour effect on winning in judo. We show that alternative factors, namely allocation biases, asymmetries in prior experience and differences in recovery time are possible confounding factors in the analysis of Rowe et al. After controlling for these factors, we found no difference in blue and white wins. We further analysed contest outcomes of 71 other major judo tournaments and also found no winning bias. Our findings have implications for sports policy makers: they suggest that a white–blue outfit pairing ensures an equal level of play.

I love negative results. They’re a complete bummer if it was your darling positive result in the first place, but they provide the clearest demonstration of how science works. The red-wins bias reported in 2006 appears to be still (pardon the pun) in play!

From the realms of philosophy of biology, an interesting article by Bjorn Brunnander about intentional language in evolutionary discourse. Is the trade-off between the efficiency-and-power of metaphorical shorthand, and the misconceptions it produces (the never-ending of conflation of proximate and ultimate), actually producing more problems than it solves?

Many evolutionists today argue for the need to make evolutionary theory an integrated part of psychology and the social sciences. If this is the agenda it should be in the interests of these thinkers to worry about factors that affect the probability of successful communication across boundaries. The track record of communication of evolutionary thinking is not altogether impressive. This is commonly recognised by evolutionists themselves, as shown by presentations of ‘popular misunderstandings’. The fact that some recurring misconceptions are clearly what we would expect to find if processing of the intentional shorthand was unreliable should make us lift questions about efficiency of exposition above the realm of rather effortless rationalisation.

Is the language of intentional psychology an efficient tool for evolutionists?(doi)

is this thing on?

Er, so I’m writing up still. End is in sight! Back to blogging sometime in February! For now I just wanted to post this quote for posterity, although no doubt I will find someplace to jam it in the conclusion.

On comparative linguistics and ethnography

In conducting diachronic research on a language that existed five or six millennia in the past one learns to accept a certain measure of crudity in comparison with what could be accomplished if direct observation were possible. The same caveat applies to the reconstruction of cultures that are associated with such prehistoric languages: for a social anthropologist to demand that a linguistic reconstruction provide details that are descriptively important to anthropological theory may be unreasonable, given the cultural lability of both lingusitic and cultural forms over a period of millennia. It is a remarkable fact that the comparative method allows us to penetrate confidently to a time-depth of perhaps six millenia, and any general feature of social organization that can be inferred from such reconstructed language material is a gift that we are not likely to recieve in any other way. (p. 37)

R. Blust (1980) Austronesian sibling terms and culture history. Bijdragen TLV 149 (11), 22-76.

on dialects of english

My friend J once described something as being “kitty-corner” from a person in a restaurant, and I seriously thought she was making up random feline-words because she’s such a sucker for cats.

It turned out that kitty-corner (or catty-corner) is some Yankee slang for “diagonally opposite” – who knew?

I just thought of this as I was in a waiting room this morning with its attendant collection of rubbish magazines, one of which was the Reader’s Digest. Ah, the Digest, with its moralising stories of real-life bravery and unceasingly good clean jokes. When I was a kid and fancied myself the cleverest, I used to like those “Word Power” quizzes where you had to know the meaning of some tricky vocabulary word. Sometimes, however, they were completely beyond my ken, not ‘cos I wasn’t smrt, but because I wasn’t North American.

I am still fascinated and will yabber on boringly to people here, even after five years, about dialect differences. “Oh, we call it a such-and-such,” I say, and go on to make people’s eyes glaze over with the myriad ways in which sweets differ from candies differ from lollies (my term) which differ from ice lollies which are actually iceblocks, not popsicles. My fairly international set of friends provide hours of fun for my dialectical (haha) observations.

Wiki sez:

On New Zealand English.
Some NZ vocab words. Up the Boohai!
On Maori influence on NZ English, including some of my favourite phrases to use that result in blank stares:
taihoa: hold on a second, wait up
puku: belly, esp. when full
half-pai: pai = good. I had always thought this was half-pie, denoting something half-done or unfinished, but this makes much more sense.
Am suprised porangi is not on there, but maybe only the kids I grew up with delighted in using “crazy” as an insult.

Another guide to Kiwi slang, which is making me yearn to have a blog called “Waikikamukau Dispatches”.

early observations on historical linguistics

Aha! Not Sir William Jones after all, but rather Lord Monboddo, his correspondent, who suggested the following in a letter of 1789.

[I]f you can discover that central country from which all those nations, which you have named, have derived their affinity in language, manners and arts, which you observe, it will be a most wonderful discovery in the history of man. Of the three things I have named, by which the connection and relation of one nation to another is discovered, I hold Language to be the principal. […] And as it is the first of arts, so it is the most lasting, and one that travels the farthest, and is propagated to the most distant regions.

From Cannon (1968) in Am. Anth. [link]

Do read the wiki on Monboddo; he sounds an entertaining and erudite sort of thinker, and one of those minor Enlightenment figures who no doubt had more of an influence on the development of evolutionary thought than the standard textbooks give a hint of. 

Language: hip-hop

Hip-hop and linguistics: you ain’t heard no research like it. Calgary linguist Daryn Howe investigates Black vernacular in hip-hop lyrics. Jeff Long, the GWUM[1], was the hip-hop fan here. The message: Black speech has lots of ain’t.

I was sitting on the bus this week idly eavesdropping on conversations and just could not understand the boys behind me, who were conversing in their particular northeast London urban Black/chav patois that I assume is an “in-group” dialect and meant to be unintelligible to me. It succeeded. It succeeded so well that I thought one of them was replying in French to his mate. I could make out a few words, but my ear honestly thought the pronounciation was Gallic. When I listened harder it became apparent it was the aforementioned dialect, but really? Couldn’t understand for the life of me.

[1] Grunt-Work Undergraduate Minion. We’ve all been there.

Edited to add:  I wondered about the possible offensiveness of my phrase “northeast London urban Black/chav patois”, but I can’t really think of a better way to put it. It’s not exclusively Black. It’s not exclusively a class thing, either, and chav is the nearest I can come up with.