Linguistics and English Language

Linguists and physicists team up to uncover the forces that shape grammar

Funding received to understand factors such as communicative need, social aspects and learning biases.

A collaboration involving physics and linguistics researchers has received a British Academy Talent Development Award which will be used to make new discoveries about a core aspect of human behaviour and cognition.

Professor Richard Blythe from the School of Physics and Astronomy and Professor Robert Truswell and Dr Dan Lassiter, who are both based in PPLS, have teamed up to lead the study.

The grant will support the application of methods and models from statistical physics to the historical corpora of language use to understand the origins of grammatical structure in human language.

A major roadblock in disentangling these factors lies in the sparsity of historical data: some grammatical changes unfurl over a millennium or more, and contemporaneous records dwindle as one looks further back in time.

The funding will bring together world experts in handling such data at a two-day workshop to be held at the University of Edinburgh in May. This in turn will provide the team with the knowledge they need to make future discoveries about the aspects of human behaviour and cognition that are responsible for the languages we use being structured as they are, and why very different languages can show similar structures.

The British Academy is funded by the UK government, Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to support the Talent Development Awards scheme. The aim of the scheme is to promote the building of skills and capacities for current and future generations, including in core areas like quantitative skills, interdisciplinarity, data science, digital humanities and languages.

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