Language Mechanics (Physics Models, Appled to Language)

James Burridge (Portsmouth)
Event time: 
Friday, March 12, 2021 - 12:00pm
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Event description: 

In this talk I will explain how three phenomena from physics – surface tension, diffusion and spin dynamics – appear in language change. We will start with the mating calls of the Puget Sound Sparrow, which behave like interacting atomic spins. These interactions create dialect regions, whose boundaries feel surface tension. I will then show that in human language isoglosses also feel surface tension, and behave like bubbles. This allows us to predict real dialect patterns. Next, we will look at diffusion, which describes the random motion of particles. I will consider diffusion in three different settings – geographical space, age and acoustic space.  Diffusion models allow us to infer spatial histories of linguistic variants, explore how new features spontaneously arise by incrementation, and model vowel evolution. By modelling the random motion phonological frames, we can combine Exemplar Theory and Quantal Theory, and show how the 2nd subglottal resonance can induce additional forces on certain vowels. Finally, I will show that spin-flip dynamics can accurately reproduce the statistical properties of the world’s vowel systems.

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