Predicting Language Change – Charles Yang (University of Pennsylvania)
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The parallels between language change and biological changes were noted by none other than Darwin himself. However, the development of a mathematical foundation for evolution has not taken place in the study of language change, even though tools from quantitative genetics have seen applications in the linguistic arena.This work attempts to develop a series of models of language change, drawing insights from population genetics on the one hand, and modern theories of linguistic structures, language acquisition and language processing on the other. The dynamics of language learning over generations turn out to bear strong resemblance to the process of Natural Selection. In some cases, this allows one to quantitatively measure the “fitness” of grammatical hypotheses and thus predict the directionality of language change. I will discuss the general use of population models in language, and present two specific case studies: the word order change from Old French to Modern French, and the cot-caught merger recently documented at the Massachusetts and Rhode Island border. The outcome of both changes is shown to be entirely predictable from the statistical composition of linguistic data in the environment.
Charles Yang teaches linguistics and computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, where he works on language learning, language change, and computational linguistics. He is the author of three books, and is currently finishing a monograph on the computational properties of words.