Studying Language Change Using the Price Equation and Pólya-urn Dynamics

Tao Gong, Lan Shuai, Monica Tamariz, Gerhard Jäger

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    26 Citations (Scopus)


    Language change takes place primarily via diffusion of linguistic variants in a population of individuals. Identifying selective pressures on this process is important not only to construe and predict changes, but also to inform theories of evolutionary dynamics of socio-cultural factors. In this paper, we advocate the Price equation from evolutionary biology and the Pólya-urn dynamics from contagion studies as efficient ways to discover selective pressures. Using the Price equation to process the simulation results of a computer model that follows the Pólya-urn dynamics, we analyze theoretically a variety of factors that could affect language change, including variant prestige, transmission error, individual influence and preference, and social structure. Among these factors, variant prestige is identified as the sole selective pressure, whereas others help modulate the degree of diffusion only if variant prestige is involved. This multidisciplinary study discerns the primary and complementary roles of linguistic, individual learning, and socio-cultural factors in language change, and offers insight into empirical studies of language change.
    Original languageEnglish
    Article numbere33171
    Number of pages12
    JournalPLoS ONE
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 12 Mar 2012


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