A model of grassroots changes in linguistic systems

8 Aug 2014  ·  Janet B. Pierrehumbert, Forrest Stonedahl, Robert Daland ·

Linguistic norms emerge in human communities because people imitate each other. A shared linguistic system provides people with the benefits of shared knowledge and coordinated planning... Once norms are in place, why would they ever change? This question, echoing broad questions in the theory of social dynamics, has particular force in relation to language. By definition, an innovator is in the minority when the innovation first occurs. In some areas of social dynamics, important minorities can strongly influence the majority through their power, fame, or use of broadcast media. But most linguistic changes are grassroots developments that originate with ordinary people. Here, we develop a novel model of communicative behavior in communities, and identify a mechanism for arbitrary innovations by ordinary people to have a good chance of being widely adopted. To imitate each other, people must form a mental representation of what other people do. Each time they speak, they must also decide which form to produce themselves. We introduce a new decision function that enables us to smoothly explore the space between two types of behavior: probability matching (matching the probabilities of incoming experience) and regularization (producing some forms disproportionately often). Using Monte Carlo methods, we explore the interactions amongst the degree of regularization, the distribution of biases in a network, and the network position of the innovator. We identify two regimes for the widespread adoption of arbritrary innovations, viewed as informational cascades in the network. With moderate regularization of experienced input, average people (not well-connected people) are the most likely source of successful innovations. Our results shed light on a major outstanding puzzle in the theory of language change. The framework also holds promise for understanding the dynamics of other social norms. read more

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