Display Settings:

Format

Send to:

Choose Destination
See comment in PubMed Commons below
Proc Biol Sci. 2010 Feb 7;277(1680):429-36. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1513. Epub 2009 Oct 7.

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

Author information

  • 1Department of Psychology, 3210 Tolman Hall, MC 1650, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-1650, USA. florencia.reali@gmail.com

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.

Comment in

PMID:
19812077
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC2842651
Free PMC Article

Images from this publication.See all images (3)Free text

Figure 1.
Figure 2.
Figure 3.
PubMed Commons home

PubMed Commons

0 comments
How to join PubMed Commons

    Supplemental Content

    Icon for HighWire Icon for PubMed Central
    Loading ...
    Write to the Help Desk