Quantifying the dynamics of topical fluctuations in language

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The availability of large diachronic corpora has provided the impetus for a growing body of quantitative research on language evolution and meaning change. The central quantities in this research are token frequencies of linguistic elements in the texts, with changes in frequency taken to reflect the popularity or selective fitness of an element. However, corpus frequencies may change for a wide variety of reasons, including purely random sampling effects, or because corpora are composed of contemporary media and fiction texts within which the underlying topics ebb and flow with cultural and socio-political trends. In this work, we introduce a computationally simple model for controlling for topical fluctuations in corpora - the topical-cultural advection model - and demonstrate how it provides a robust baseline of variability in word frequency changes over time. We validate the model on a diachronic corpus spanning two centuries, and a carefully-controlled artificial language change scenario, and then use it to correct for topical fluctuations in historical time series. Finally, we show that the model can be used to show that emergence of new words typically corresponds with the rise of a trending topic. This suggests that some lexical innovations occur due to growing communicative need in a subspace of the lexicon, and that the topical-cultural advection model can be used to quantify this.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)86-125
JournalLanguage Dynamics and Change
Issue number1
Early online date10 Feb 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Feb 2020


  • advection
  • lexical dynamics
  • language change
  • language evolution
  • frequency
  • topic modelling
  • corpus-based


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