Words as alleles: Connecting language evolution with Bayesian learners to models of genetic drift

Florencia Reali, Thomas L. Griffiths

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

43 Scopus citations

Abstract

Scientists studying how languages change over time often make an analogy between biological and cultural evolution, with words or grammars behaving like traits subject to natural selection. Recent work has exploited this analogy by using models of biological evolution to explain the properties of languages and other cultural artefacts. However, the mechanisms of biological and cultural evolution are very different: biological traits are passed between generations by genes, while languages and concepts are transmitted through learning. Here we show that these different mechanisms can have the same results, demonstrating that the transmission of frequency distributions over variants of linguistic forms by Bayesian learners is equivalent to the Wright-Fisher model of genetic drift. This simple learning mechanism thus provides a justification for the use of models of genetic drift in studying language evolution. In addition to providing an explicit connection between biological and cultural evolution, this allows us to define a 'neutral' model that indicates how languages can change in the absence of selection at the level of linguistic variants. We demonstrate that this neutral model can account for three phenomena: the s-shaped curve of language change, the distribution of word frequencies, and the relationship between word frequencies and extinction rates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)429-436
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume277
Issue number1680
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 7 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

Keywords

  • Bayesian inference
  • Genetic drift
  • Language evolution
  • Neutral models

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