14th century version of the Lord’s Prayer, showing how much a familiar Western text has changed over the centuries.

Eight researchers spanning the linguistic disciplines met at SFI for two days in March to nd common ground and address big questions about how human language changes.

The workshop, called “Models of Innovation and Propagation in Language Change,” was organized by SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Dan Hruschka and External Professor Morten Christiansen (Cornell University). It builds on a related meeting held last year.

“Discovering the pressures that lead people to adopt new words and ways of saying things helps us understand the nature of social interaction and the human condition more broadly,” Morten says.

Rather than the typical series of talks followed by discussions, the researchers explored themes based on ve position papers written by participants and circulated before they met.

Issues of interest included models of random and constrained change in language, conditions of creating change, and how social forces like population structure and context act as mechanisms for changes to spread and stay in languages. First, though, they had to decide how each discipline, from cognitive linguistics to historical linguistics, defines ideas like variance and innovation.

“Every time we say a new sentence, that’s probably a new way of saying something,” says Dan. “Is that entire utterance an innovation? What counts as an innovation?”

Morten called the workshop a success. “We were able to put together a number of ways of looking at language change across the different perspectives of participants.”

They outlined a paper that covers their findings, tentatively titled “Toward a cognitive science approach to language change,” and plan to submit it to a journal later this year. 

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