Inferring the drivers of language change using spatial models

James Burridge, Tamsin Blaxter

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Discovering and quantifying the drivers of language change is a major challenge. Hypotheses about causal factors proliferate, but are difficult to rigorously test. Here we ask a simple question: can 20th Century changes in English English be explained as a consequence of spatial diffusion, or have other processes created bias in favour of certain linguistic forms? Using two of the most comprehensive spatial datasets available, which measure the state of English at the beginning and end of the 20th century, we calibrate a simple spatial model so that, initialised with the early state, it evolves into the later. Our calibrations reveal that while some changes can be explained by diffusion alone, others are clearly the result of substantial asymmetries between variants. We discuss the origins of these asymmetries and, as a by-product, we generate a full spatio-temporal prediction for the spatial evolution of English features over the 20th Century, and a prediction of the future.
Original languageEnglish
Article number035018
Pages (from-to)1-29
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Physics: Complexity
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2021


  • statistical physics
  • spatial models
  • language evolution


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