LEL linguists past and present in Science Advances

Posted on January 4, 2021 by

Science Advances, an interdisciplinary science journal with an impact factor of 7 billion or thereabouts, has just published a paper penned by a fabulous line-up with more than a touch of LEL. In the driver seat is PhD alumnus Henri Kauhanen (now at Konstanz), joined by Deepthi Gopal (PhD alumna, now at Cambridge), Tobias Galla (Mancunian, astrophysicist) and Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero (LEL colleague, Henri and Deepthi’s PhD supervisor, and, let’s not forget, a PhD alumnus).

The paper is titled “Geospatial distributions reflect temperatures of linguistic features”. Most of us didn’t even know that features could have a temperature, and meanwhile those Mancunian linguists (and an astrophysicist) have already built a thermometer. If you want to know how it works, you can read the paper here (available Open Access!). The abstract is below.

Quantifying the speed of linguistic change is challenging because the historical evolution of languages is sparsely documented. Consequently, traditional methods rely on phylogenetic reconstruction. Here, we propose a model-based approach to the problem through the analysis of language change as a stochastic process combining vertical descent, spatial interactions, and mutations in both dimensions. A notion of linguistic temperature emerges naturally from this analysis as a dimensionless measure of the propensity of a linguistic feature to undergo change. We demonstrate how temperatures of linguistic features can be inferred from their present-day geospatial distributions, without recourse to information about their phylogenies. Thus, the evolutionary dynamics of language, operating across thousands of years, leave a measurable geospatial signature. This signature licenses inferences about the historical evolution of languages even in the absence of longitudinal data.