Understanding Languages with Physics and Math

A husband and wife scientist duo from Poland has developed a computer model that simulates how vocabulary exchanges occur between settlers and nomads. According to their results, published in the journal Physical Review E, the nomadic groups are more likely to adopt words from settlers than the other way around.

The new model provides a tool that can help sociolinguists understand how migration and intercultural interactions can influence the evolution of a language. While linguists tend to express careful skepticism about the significance of this and similar predictive computational models, these studies contribute to the growing interest of studying social behaviors with computational methods.

“For this study, we developed a model using a method that has been around for 20 years or so,” said Adam Lipowski, a physicist from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. He is referring to the Naming Game, which simulates the exchange of information between individuals during face-to-face interactions.

The model divides individuals into two groups, each with their own language. During the simulation, the group that represents the settlers stays put, while individuals from the nomadic group move around. Over time, the model shows that the nomads are more likely to pick up new words than the settlers, even when everything else, such as the vocabulary size or the population size of the groups, were kept equal. This result came as a bit of a surprise to Lipowski and his co-author, Dorota Lipowska.

Read more: Inside Science

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