How the Physics of Topography Explains Language Diversity

How the Physics of Topography Explains Language Diversity


It’s not only linguists that are permitted to study language. A recent investigation by a physicist and mathematician has shown how the physical landscape affects the spread of dialect. The new model of language diversity and spread indicates how geography and population density play an important role in influencing the spread of dialects – and it can all be explained mathematically.

The study by James Burridge at the University of Portsmouth reveals that the maths used to describe bubbles and water droplets can also explain how dialects travel. Studies of surface tension on drops of oil or water show how smaller bubbles tend to merge into bigger ones, or how different types of bubble tend to merge into layers rather than intermingle. The new language model shows that comparable effects occur with different dialect groups.

New ways of speaking tend to spread out from large population centers, as populations nearby merge into the larger dialect ‘bubble’ such as a city. Densely populated areas repel boundaries, to create their own new dialect areas.

Where geographies have irregular perimeters – such as coastline indentations, the boundary lines between dialect areas tend to migrate to the edge of the area and eventually become perpendicular from these edges.

Model projections of how dialects might spread across potential physical landscapes have been shown to correspond to known real-world examples of dialect distributions, such as in Germany valleys. This suggests the model may have credibility.

A new model

Linguists have traditionally relied on language trees to map the evolution of language through time. Other models include the wave model, which looks at how language spreads out from a single point and varies according to the distance from this source.

Models that take into account the influence of geography on the divergence of language has focused particularly on population centres. These studies generally show how population density is an important disruptor to the proximity effect described by the wave model.

Language tends to ‘jump’ from population centre to population centre, meaning they travel quickly across densely populated areas and spread further from source through such areas. Language innovations spread less quickly through less densely populated areas.

This field of study is known as ‘dialectology’, and it’s been disrupted by the arrival of Burridge’s new model looking at dialect distribution through a focus on topographical features and speaker interaction.

It starts by assuming that speakers of local dialects interact with people in their local environment, defined by a small radius around their home, and that language used by local people will tend to be fairly homogenous. The model shows that dialect distribution imitates how surface tension on a drop of water minimizes its area.

Burridge’s model helps explain the boundary between north-south English dialects and also some variants in Rheinish dialects. There are obvious flaws with the model. In regions where language groups have been displaced due to famine or conflict, it’s highly likely that the model would need to be adapted. It also ignores the important prestige factors present in any human society.

The language innovations of admired or important population segments are likely to catch on much more quickly than those of less influential groups.

Burridge’s model may fail to capture the effect of this social influence but it may also have implications for other aspects of human culture besides language. It may be possible to apply the model to the transmission of cultural elements such as technological innovations and artistic styles.

Language and isolation

A dialect requires three elements to become established: there needs to be a group of people living together closely, such as in an agricultural or religious community. There needs to be an element of isolation, which was easier to achieve in the days before mainstream media. Finally, time is an important factor. Ways of speaking don’t just change over night, at least where accents and dialects are concerned.

But all these factors are being severely disrupted by modern technological progress. Whilst topography may have had a historic influence of the spread of dialect, human beings are far less restricted by physical geography than they have been in the past.

Although Rheinish dialects may have developed in the relative isolation of inaccessible valleys, those valleys are now far more accessible thanks to modern transportation. Mass media also has an impact on dialect proliferation. So although recent models of language development are insightful, new ones may be needed to factor in for new language influences.

One frequent criticism of language models is that they don’t factor in for the important role of social influencers in spreading language innovations and influencing change. In times past this may have been invaders from other language groups, such as the Normans or Romans.

In modern times innovation may happen via online influencers through channels such as social media, or come from a film industry in a specific location. It’s always been possible for a small demographic to punch well above its weight when it comes to influencing language, but in modern times the influence of such groups can carry much further in geographic terms thanks to modern technology and mass media.

Although the topological model may go some way to explaining why dialects have spread as they do, the next language model that emerges may need to account for the growing influence of media on the way we speak.

When it comes to language change, things are happening much faster than in the past and models may need to adapt if they are to fully explain the new landscape of language transmission.

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