Thursday, November 27, 2008


Happy Turkey Day!
NPR, this morning, broadcast a piece by Robert Krulwich on why we call the American bird a turkey, which is only tenuously related to why we call a third-rate Broadway production a turkey.

This brought to mind the more general problem of linguistic change. Historically, languages have diverged as populations have diverged and become isolated; and languages have expanded as populations have later encountered each other. Riding atop this current is the surface drift of random error—misheard and misunderstood words acquired by one generation from that which preceded or by one neighbor from another. Historical linguists, etymologists, and lexicographers have studied all this in great detail and they tell fascinating stories about where our words come from.

The open question is how the random slurrings of parents and mishearings of their children converge, however briefly and imprecisely, on a consensus as to what a word is, what it sounds like, what it means, and how it is used. How do we manage to maintain language, that is, rather than dissolving into the entropy of Babel? How does one person’s usage reinforce another’s to latch onto one variant and discard the rest?

Meanwhile, back at the ant farm…
Biologists, not very many years ago (here’s a paper from 1994, for example), learned of the mechanism by which ants communicate the location of a food source. Briefly, scouts wander about quite randomly, but keeping track of their distance from the ant colony. When one encounters some food, she (or is it he in the case of ants—I’m not sure) heads back, leaving behind a trail of chemical scent (a pheromone). When other wandering minstrels encounter this trail, they tend to follow it, reinforcing the scent. So long as this is working—that is, so long as it is leading ants to food—the trail is continuously reinforced. But each ant’s individual trail has a defined half-life. It fades over time. So false trails (in the first place) or those where the food has all been consumed fade into oblivion.

This phenomenon was noticed by computer scientists, who reasoned that the same mechanism could be used to find the most efficient path across the Internet or the most efficient algorithm to solve complicated problems of other sorts; and they have been merrily applying this methodology with good results.

Pheromones on steroids
In the Internet Age, of course, linguistic innovation is not limited to the kids in the neighborhood. Instead we have neologisms rocketing up from every subculture and exploding across the sky like a fireworks display (wrong holiday, I know). But I cannot help wondering whether the mathematics of ant trails would not be a useful tool with which to model linguistic change. For one thing, it could easily account for technological advances in communication reach and speed just by tweaking a parameter here and there.

Just some noncaloric food to chew on. Perhaps something to expand the mind rather than the waist.

Happy Thanksgiving! And if you’re not in the US, have a good day anyway.

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