Measuring the diffusion of linguistic change

John Nerbonne*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

    40 Citations (Scopus)


    We examine situations in which linguistic changes have probably been propagated via normal contact as opposed to via conquest, recent settlement and large-scale migration. We proceed then from two simplifying assumptions: first, that all linguistic variation is the result of either diffusion or independent innovation, and, second, that we may operationalize social contact as geographical distance. It is clear that both of these assumptions are imperfect, but they allow us to examine diffusion via the distribution of linguistic variation as a function of geographical distance. Several studies in quantitative linguistics have examined this relation, starting with Seguy (Seguy 1971 Rev. Linguist. Romane 35, 335-357), and virtually all report a sublinear growth in aggregate linguistic variation as a function of geographical distance. The literature from dialectology and historical linguistics has mostly traced the diffusion of individual features, however, so that it is sensible to ask what sort of dynamic in the diffusion of individual features is compatible with Seguy's curve. We examine some simulations of diffusion in an effort to shed light on this question.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)3821-3828
    Number of pages8
    JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences
    Issue number1559
    Publication statusPublished - 12-Dec-2010


    • linguistics
    • dialects
    • diffusion

    Cite this