A voter-model approach to the distribution and dynamics of typological features of language


The world’s languages can be classified according to a wide range of features: e.g. whether they place the verb before or after the object (VO vs OV word-order), whether or not they have a definiteness marker akin to English the, etc. Features are passed from earlier to later periods in the history of each language, and also across neighbouring languages. As this happens, different features change at different rates: e.g. the OV word-order is comparatively stable, whereas definiteness markers come and go more frequently. In previous work, we have shown that a feature’s relative propensity to change can be estimated just by looking at whether the languages that have it are clumped or scattered in geographic space. This is made possible by a model of language change that uses tools first developed in statistical physics and probability theory.                  

Developing this programme, we will now study how linguistic features interact with one another: we know, for example, that the chances of word-order flipping from OV to VO go up if the language has prepositions instead of postpositions. We will also consider how physical barriers affect the distribution of linguistic features in geographic space, as such barriers constrain the processes of migration and diversification through which languages split into multiple descendants. Finally, to explain a feature's propensity to change across the world's languages, we will draw on physical, cognitive and social factors acting on individual speakers.                     

This work will provide a template for using spatial data to understand other forms of cultural evolution.

The project is funded by an an APEX award for interdisciplinary research from the Royal Society in partnership with the British Academy and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and with support from the Leverhulme Trust.
Short titleA voter-model approach
Effective start/end date15/09/2114/09/23