Geospatial distributions reflect temperatures of linguistic features

Kauhanen, Henri; Gopal, Deepthi; Galla, Tobias; Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo
Science Advances 7, eabe6540 (1-10) (2021)

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.

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