Direction and directedness in language change: an evolutionary model of selection by trend-amplification
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Human languages are not static entities. Linguistic conventions, whose social and communicative meaning are understood by all members of a speech community, are gradually altered or replaced, whether by changing their forms, meanings, or by the loss of or introduction of altogether new distinctions. How do large speech communities go about re-negotiating arbitrary associations in the absence of centralised coordination? This thesis first provides an overview of the plethora of explanations that have been given for language change. Approaching language change in a quantitative and evolutionary framework, mathematical and computational modelling is put forward as a tool to investigate and compare these different accounts and their purported underlying mechanisms in a rigorous fashion. The central part of the thesis investigates a relatively recent addition to the pool of mechanisms that have been proposed to influence language change: I will compare previous accounts with a momentum-based selection account of language change, a replicator-neutral model where the popularity of a variant is modulated by its momentum, i.e. its change in frequency of use in the recent past. I will discuss results from a multi-agent model which show that the dynamics of a trend-amplifying mechanism like this are characteristic of language change, in particular by exhibiting spontaneously generated s-shaped transitions. I will also discuss several empirical predictions made by a momentum-based selection account which contrast with those that can be derived from other accounts of language change. Going beyond theoretical arguments for the role of trends in language change, I will go on to present fieldwork data of speakers’ awareness of ongoing syntactic changes in the Shetland dialect of Scots. Data collected using a novel questionnaire methodology show that individuals possess explicit knowledge about the direction as well as current progression of ongoing changes, even for grammatical structures which are very low in frequency. These results complement previous experimental evidence which showed that individuals both possess and make use of implicit knowledge about age-dependent usage differences during ongoing sound changes. Echoing the literature on evolutionary approaches to language change, the final part of the thesis stresses the importance of explicitly situating different pressures either in the domain of the innovation of new or else the selection of existing variants. Based on a modification of the Wright-Fisher model from population genetics, I will argue that trend-amplification selection mechanisms provide predictions that neatly match empirical facts, both in terms of the diachronic dynamics of language change, as well as in terms of the synchronic distribution of linguistic traits that we find in the world.