The missing language link

The distribution of languages is the result of the movin’ and migratin’ of millions of people over tens of thousands of years. As a fossil of human history, it’s unrivalled in its richness.

So understandin’ this distribution is major task for them linguists and them historians who want to know more about our ancestors’ locomotin’ habits. One interestin’ feature is that the size of language families follows a power law, like many other natural and social phenomena. Whereas the size of languages by the number of speakers has a different distribution.

To understand why this might be, researchers have been a-buildin and a-tinkerin with computer models of language distribution in an attempt to match the observed data. This week, Paulo Murilo Castro de Oliveira aka “Mr Margarine” at the Ecole Superieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles in Paris and colleagues say they’ve cracked it.

Mr Margarine says the trick is to combine two computer models: one that simulates the migration of peoples and the propagation of languages and another that simulates the linguistic structure of languages and how they evolve.

The result is a model that accurately reproduces the observed distribution of languages and language families for the first time. This is a potential goldmine.

Mr Margarine is so confident in his model that he says it can be used to predict undiscovered features of language distribution.

That’s a big claim but one that rings hollow given that slippery My Margarine ain’t sayin’ what any of these might be.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0709.0868: A Computer Simulation of Language Families

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