The Physics of Language Change

Some of you are studying maths and/or physics as well as English. I wonder if it’s occurred to you to connect those disciplines?

Well, it occurred to some physicists, mathematicians and linguists at the University of Edinburgh and elsewhere, and they made the main news on Radio4 this morning. The clip is available by clicking here, and the BBC Website has an article here.

They have examined the remarkably rapid change in New Zealand English from the time of the first British settlers, speaking in a variety of accents and dialects of English, to a point where within 50 years all New Zealanders were speaking with a common accent and dialect.
How this happened so quickly has been something of a mystery, but Richard Blythe of the Physics department at Edinburgh says, “We’re currently using the formation of the New Zealand English language dialect as a testing ground for new ideas, and in particular to see how well modelling paradigms from physics and genetics (see above) are suited to the task. Meanwhile, learning plays a central role in cultural replication, so we’re also trying to come up with some theories for how that works both for individuals and in spatially-extended populations too.”

The Telegraph, reporting the same story, added that “at the time the Kiwi dialect was born, there would have been between 100,000 and one million people living in New Zealand and the team applied the same mathematics to model what happened as is used to deduce the overall properties of a gas from its constituent molecules.”

If that sounds like your bag, you can even read the whole paper here.

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5 Responses to The Physics of Language Change

  1. dan says:

    Wow, if only I’d looked on here before I wouldn’t have had to rip my own copy of the Radio 4 feature on this (although I think I’ve got a slightly different version of the same feature:

    It’s a really interesting way of investigating the language and I think what they’ve discovered tells us a lot about the changes that affect our own language these days (and over the centuries, i suppose).

  2. Natalie says:

    Hi Sir,

    This is nothing to do with your post but you know on Thursdays lesson when you had that info on the board with the different things like abstract and Coda which we had to use to label the Jonathan Ross transcript with well where can i find those features on your blog.


  3. Mr Heald says:

    Hi Natalie,

    Over on the right:
    Course Specific Pages > the Language of Speech > Oral Narrative Structure (Labov)


  4. Mr Heald says:

    Dan – you were obviously up earlier than me. I missed the full feature and only caught the summary in the news headlines.

    So you have a more useful bit of audio, and, of course, have a much better written and more interesting blog entry than mine.

    But at least I got in there before you for once!

    Usually I hear or read something of interest, and think, hmm, this would make an interesting blog entry. Then I think, ah sod it: Dan’ll have it up on his site in no time, replete with links and cross references to earlier entries, I might as well go and have a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

  5. dan says:

    That’s because I have no life and you clearly do. I like that last link though…

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