EPJ B Highlight - Statistical physics reveals how languages evolve

Charting the survival of linguistic structures

Models based on the principles of statistical physics can provide useful insights into how languages change through contact between speakers of different languages. In particular, the analysis reveals how unusual linguistic forms are more likely to be replaced by more regular ones over time.

The field of historical linguistics explores how languages change over time, with a particular focus on the evolution of sounds, meanings, and structures in words and sentences. So far, however, it hasn’t been widely studied from the viewpoint of statistical physics – which uses mathematical models to explain patterns and behaviours in complex, evolving systems. Through a series of models described in EPJ B, Jean-Marc Luck at Université Paris-Saclay, together with Anita Mehta at the Clarendon Institute in Oxford, use statistical physics to show how exceptions to well-established grammatical rules are linked to the influence of neighbouring languages.

According to linguists, languages essentially evolve in two different ways: either through modifications of their roots in more ancient languages, or by borrowing aspects from other modern languages through contact between speakers. In their study, Luck and Mehta drew from the principles of statistical physics to develop a series of mathematical models which allowed them to examine the evolution of word structures more closely – with a particular emphasis on the rules governing verb conjugation. Through ‘static’ models, the duo expressed the relative numbers of rules and exceptions to grammatical structures in languages; while in their ‘dynamic’ models, they focused on the emergence of exceptions to these rules.

Luck and Mehta’s analysis showed how unlikely survivors of these changes are winners against the odds: emerging when the influence of neighbouring languages exceeds their tendency towards ‘regularisation’ – where irregular linguistic patterns are replaced by more regular ones over time. In English, for example, past participles like ‘-ed’ added onto the ends of verbs tend to prevail over more unusual linguistic forms, like the ‘-uck’ in ‘stuck’ or ‘struck.’ These insights could help linguists to better understand how languages evolve, and even identify aspects of modern languages which are more likely to change in the future.

Luck, JM., Mehta, A. Evolution of grammatical forms: some quantitative approaches. Eur. Phys. J. B 96:19 (2023).

This was our first experience of publishing with EPJ Web of Conferences. We contacted the publisher in the middle of September, just one month prior to the Conference, but everything went through smoothly. We have had published MNPS Proceedings with different publishers in the past, and would like to tell that the EPJ Web of Conferences team was probably the best, very quick, helpful and interactive. Typically, we were getting responses from EPJ Web of Conferences team within less than an hour and have had help at every production stage.
We are very thankful to Solange Guenot, Web of Conferences Publishing Editor, and Isabelle Houlbert, Web of Conferences Production Editor, for their support. These ladies are top-level professionals, who made a great contribution to the success of this issue. We are fully satisfied with the publication of the Conference Proceedings and are looking forward to further cooperation. The publication was very fast, easy and of high quality. My colleagues and I strongly recommend EPJ Web of Conferences to anyone, who is interested in quick high-quality publication of conference proceedings.

On behalf of the Organizing and Program Committees and Editorial Team of MNPS-2019, Dr. Alexey B. Nadykto, Moscow State Technological University “STANKIN”, Moscow, Russia. EPJ Web of Conferences vol. 224 (2019)

ISSN: 2100-014X (Electronic Edition)

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