Evolang Previews: The nomothetic approach to language evolution

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Evolang is busy this year – 4 parallel sessions and over 50 posters. We’ll be positing a series of previews to help you decide what to go and see. If you’d like to post a preview of your work, get in touch and we’ll give you a guest slot.

Sean Roberts & James Winters Constructing Knowledge: The nomothetic approach to language evolution
Session 2, Workshop on Constructive Approaches to Language evolution, 13th March

Recently, there’s been a surge in large-scale, cross-cultural statistical studies that look at the co-evolution of language structure are social structure.  These contrast with small-scale case studies on the one hand and computational models on the other.  Lupyan & Dale refer to this approach as ‘Nomothetic’ – looking for general patterns or laws.  For example, they find that the number of speakers of a language correlates with the morphological complexity of that language.  These approaches are cheap, fast and easy to perform.  They use real data, and they might reveal some interesting links that we might want to include in our models.  However, on their own, they have little explanatory power:  We know that group size and morphological complexity are linked, but the statistics don’t tell us why they are linked (see Hannah’s post and my comment, too).

Worse, the amount of data available on the internet and new statistical techniques mean that it’s possible to find some sort of link between any cultural traits (as this set of spurious correlations demonstrates).  For example, there is a robust link between linguistic diversity and the number of road fatalities in a country.  Does this mean that models of linguistic diversity should include a simulation of traffic accidents?  Probably not, but which studies should we pay attention to as modellers?

This talk discusses the new nomothetic approach and presents some criteria to keep in mind when conducting or reviewing a nomothetic study.  We conclude that nomothetic studies can work together with constructive, idiographic and experimental approaches to get a better picture of how language structure and social structure are linked.

You can read our paper here.

2 thoughts on “Evolang Previews: The nomothetic approach to language evolution”

  1. I just noticed that there’s a replicated typo featured in all preview-preambles: “positing” instead of “posting” – wonder whether you did that on purpose 😉 But anyway, it’s a nice micro-example of cultural/evolutionary transmission of little errors within a digital community 🙂

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