Challenges in detecting evolutionary forces in language change using diachronic corpora

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Newberry et al. (Detecting evolutionary forces in language change, Nature 551, 2017) tackle an important but difficult problem in linguistics, the testing of selective theories of language change against a null model of drift. Having applied a test from population genetics (the Frequency Increment Test) to a number of relevant examples, they suggest stochasticity has a previously under-appreciated role in language evolution. We replicate their results and find that while the overall observation holds, results produced by this approach on individual time series can be sensitive to how the corpus is organized into temporal segments (binning). Furthermore, we use a large set of simulations in conjunction with binning to systematically explore the range of applicability of the Frequency Increment Test. We conclude that care should be exercised with interpreting results of tests like the Frequency Increment Test on individual series, given the researcher degrees of freedom available when applying the test to corpus data, and fundamental differences between genetic and linguistic data. Our findings have implications for selection testing and temporal binning in general, as well as demonstrating the usefulness of simulations for evaluating methods newly introduced to the field.
Original languageEnglish
Article number45
Number of pages25
JournalGlossa: A Journal of General Linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 May 2020


  • language evolution
  • language change
  • selection
  • drift
  • corpus-based
  • temporal binning


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