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Language Evolution in Spatial Domains, and Statistical Physics

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Language is evolving everywhere, all the time. As a result, people from different parts of a language area may use their language in quite different ways. This geographical variation has often been visualized using “isoglosses”: lines marking the approximate geographical boundaries of different linguistic features. In this talk I will introduce a simple mathematical model in which domains of distinctive language use emerge spontaneously, with transition zones in between. I will show that domain boundaries (isoglosses) feel a form of surface tension and are also warped and moved by variations in population density, allowing us to predict the shapes of distinctive linguistic zones in different countries. Much of this simplicity arises from a connection between linguistics and physics: isoglosses behave much like domain walls between different atomic orderings in certain magnetic or crystalline materials, first studied by Ilya Lifshitz (a Russian Physicist) in 1962. I will then describe recent developments, in which continuous space is replaced with an embedded network, and more realistic processes describing language dynamics are investigated.

This talk is part of the King's Occasional Lectures series.

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