Thursday, November 26, 2009

You Say Po-TAY-To, And I Say Pot-AAH-To! Language Evolves Through Our Own Use Of It

Change in language can be compared with evolution in the world of animals and plants. According to Dutch researcher Frank Landsbergen, an individual user of language can spark off an evolution of his or her language. His new approach, comparing linguistic change with evolution, offers a number of advantages for the study of linguistic change.

Language is an evolutionary system. It is based on the same mechanisms that appear in the world of plants and animals. For instance, language incorporates variations in the choice of words, meanings or pronunciation. Consciously or unconsciously, we opt to use a particular word. If that word spreads throughout a group, the language will change. Linguistic change is therefore based on the people using the language.

In his research, Frank Landsbergen combined a philological approach with a biological approach to investigate some cases of linguistic change, such as the meaning of a word like the Dutch 'krijgen'. In 1300, it meant 'to grasp', whereas nowadays it means 'to receive'. The results show that reasonably simple trends in the way language users behave can explain this type of change.

Evolutionary computer models Landsbergen developed his own computer models for the research. These consisted of groups of individuals, with a defined knowledge of language and a defined way of communicating. The model allowed Landsbergen to imitate language use and study the effect of an individual at the level of the group. This method therefore allows a complex process such as language change to be better understood. It also facilitates an accurate study of how the process might be influenced by a range of possible factors.

Collaborative project

Landsbergen's research formed part of the project 'Modelling cultural evolution. A parallel investigation of changes in bird song and human language'. The object was to gain an understanding of underlying evolutionary processes of language change and changes in birdsong. The project was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Anonymous. 2009. "You Say Po-TAY-To, And I Say Pot-AAH-To! Language Evolves Through Our Own Use Of It". . Posted:November 20, 2009. Available online:

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