Language is dynamic. New words enter, words that have outlived their usefulness leave, and enduring words are used more or less often over time. But is the pace of those shifts constant? Or, for example, did English change more rapidly from 1850 to 1900 than it did from 1900 to 1950? Information theory can quantitatively address such questions with a function called the Jensen–Shannon divergence, D. Start with a database of representative words that shows how frequently each word is used in various years. Put in those usage probabilities word by word for the two years to be compared, and D yields a number that measures how much the language shifted. But, as Martin Gerlach, then a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, and his colleagues have noted, D’s overall language assessment is blind to a salient feature: As the figure...
Steven K. Blau; Fine-tuning our view of how language changes. Physics Today 1 June 2016; 69 (6): 23. https://doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.3191
Download citation file:
Purchase an annual subscription for $25. A subscription grants you access to all of Physics Today's current and backfile content.