Predicting the geographical dynamics of language
Language is evolving everywhere, all the time. As a result, people from different parts of a language area may use their language in quite different ways. This geographical variation has often been visualized using “isoglosses”: lines marking the approximate geographical boundaries of different linguistic features. In this talk I will introduce a simple mathematical model in which domains of distinctive language use emerge spontaneously, with transition zones in between. I will show that the shapes of domain boundaries (isoglosses) feel a form of surface tension and are also warped and moved by variations in population density in a predictable way. I will make comparison between the model’s predictions, and the dialect areas of various countries, and I will show how features such as hierarchical diffusion, fanning, isogloss bundles, city dialects and dialect loss can be explained in a simple may. Finally, I will discuss the connections between linguistics and physics: we are modelling isoglosses as if they were domain walls between different atomic orderings in magnetic or crystalline materials, but this is not the only analogy: linguists have their own version of the correlation function: “Seguy’s curve”. Perhaps both communities have been studying similar phenomena but at very different length scales, for some time.
This is a weekly series of webinars on theoretical aspects of Condensed Matter, Biological, and Statistical Physics. It is open to anyone interested in research in these areas..