Fundamental vocabulary
In addition to developing these tools, we have also discovered that a
common set of vocabulary items that are expected to be used in all
languages – often called the ‘fundamental vocabulary’ – are used at very
similar frequencies in languages spoken around the world. Thus, words
like ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and some number words
(one to five) are used at high frequencies in all languages, whereas words
like ‘belly’, ‘woods’, ‘dust’ or ‘to squeeze’ are used at low frequencies.
This tells us that all speakers in a variety of locations are using language
for the same purpose, mainly to describe who did what to whom, where
they did it and how many of them there were. That is, we use language to
describe social relations. Significantly, it is these highly-used words that
evolve slowly, and that seem to play a significant role in keeping track of
social relations.
The past
We have also used our knowledge of how rapidly words evolve to arrive
at a date for when Homer wrote his epic stories
The Iliad
do this, we compared Homeric and modern Greek vocabulary items, noted
which words had changed and then applied what could be thought of as
a ‘linguistic clock’ (based on our knowledge of rates of change) to infer a
date. Our date – 762 BCE – is based solely on vocabulary items and does
not make use of any other historical or archaeological information, and
yet it is in strong agreement with what classicists and historians believe.
The challenges we have overcome thus far are principally those of
statistical and mathematical modelling. For instance, there are around 60
phonemes and each of these can, in principle, change to any other
phoneme, meaning that there are some 3,600 things to keep track of,
each one of which is a parameter that we must estimate in a statistical
model. We are thus developing mathematical techniques that allow us to
reduce this number to, perhaps, five to ten, and to do this in an automatic
and statistically unbiased way.
The future
Moving forward, I hope that we are able to discover very general laws of
linguistic evolution and then go on to create statistical models that describe
these general laws on both the macro (between populations) and micro
(within populations) scales. It is also our aim that others will then adopt
these laws within their own research.
My long-term hope is that we can help to create a new generation of
comparative and historical linguists who are as at home with statistical
modelling as biologists are with modelling gene sequences.
compete for our attention, and which ones are
likely to win?
For instance, at the moment there are a number
of words competing to be the ‘sound’ we use to
describe that large piece of comfortable furniture
in our sitting rooms that three or maybe four
people can sit on (sofa, couch, settee, Chesterfield,
and so on). One of these will eventually ‘win’ and
become our word for that meaning. Or, it might be
that one word will become very dominant, but the
others will still be used but at very low frequency.
Thus, everyone says ‘January’ if asked what the
first month of the year is, nearly everyone says
‘two’ to describe two objects (a tiny number might
say a ‘pair’ or a ‘couple’ but even then only in an
informal setting).
We take it for granted that we agree on what
‘sound’ to use to express a particular meaning,
but it is not always obvious how we arrive at
that consensus, and indeed we don’t always
reach one.
We are therefore developing a micro-evolutionary
statistical model that shows how these otherwise
arbitrary sounds (‘sofa’ versus‘couch’ for example)
come to acquire a ‘fitness’ merely by being used.
Thus, if something gives one of them a little push
(such as being used by a prominent person or
perhaps appearing in television adverts) it can
become ‘fitter’ and then take off and eventually go
to what we call ‘fixation’ (everyone uses it) merely
because it is used – thus, words have a property
of being used more the more they are used.
The words that eventually win are not necessarily
better, they just got lucky. The proof of this is that
in the US, ‘couch’ is currently preferred to ‘sofa’,
whereas in the UK ‘sofa’ leads ‘couch’.
Pan European Networks: Science & Technology
Professor Mark Pagel
Mother Tongue Project
The search for a Mother
Tongue is important
because to do so one
has to understand the
laws of linguistic
evolution and then
rewind them to get a
glimpse of our distant
linguistic past
© lusi
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