Gonna Try to Make a Spatial Model of Regional Dialect Formation

And in that spirit

I heard an interview on NPR with William Labov. He was talking about how regional dialects in the US are entrenching and differentiating themselves. Which seems counter to what you might think would be the case in a highly connected and media-centralized society. He talked a lot specifically about the ‘Northern Cities Shift’, which if you happen to know some native Michiganders you may be anecdotally aware of. I thought it was fascinating that dialect doesn’t settle down into some kind of homogenous equilibrium, or a least isn’t doing so now. It struck me that that kind of perpetual novelty and lava-lamp partial pattern persistence is the sort of thing you see in systems complexity — places where there are many agents interacting with local rules which crank out the big-system behaviour.

I have to make a model for my agent-based modeling course, so I figured: this is the one. No, it’s got nuthin to do with ecology or landscapes or remote sensing or whatever, but the more I think about the more I think it’s kind of cool anyway.

With our ant-trail presentations out of the way, these days we’re having the presentations on our proposed models. I presented last week, and all the proposals were really cool: a model of pollution-coalition formation and stability among nations from Johannes Urpelainen; a completely off-the-hook model of interest and agenda formation and influence in distributed human communities from Andrew Bell, and Kensuke Mori suggested a meta-population model of predation and birth patterns in african mammals, which is the sort of thing I wish I had thought of because it’s such a clear ecological application. That’s the first set of presentations. Damn.

The slides from my own presentation are here. They get weak at the end, I was still wacking away at them at home 8 minutes before the start of class. Like any good presentation they probably won’t mean much with the audio component anyway — highlights from my draft proposal follow below, and the whole thing is here.

Model Mechanics

My model will be constructed of population centers, each of which will have as its primary attributes the mouth?position of the five vowels as spoken there. Each vowel will have a position independent of the others. The particular representation of these positions will be one of the cruxes of model design. In the simplest case, the mouth position can be represented in a simple scale “starting” at the top front of the mouth and “ending” at the bottom front. In the more complex case, the mouth could be represented as a cross?sectional 2?dimensional space, with each vowel having both an X and Y coordinate.

In either case, vowels will be able to move into any position in the mouth. There will be two forces influencing their position: a pull towards the mouth?positions of the same vowels in nearby population centers, representing the tendency for speakers who encounter each other to mimic each others’ dialects, and a push away from the mouth?positions of the other vowels in that population center, representing the impetus to pronounce words with similar consonants distinctly. The locations of the vowels in that city will in turn have an attraction for other cities.

Spatial Implementation

A first step would be the implementation of identical population centers in a simple network topology. A more interesting version would be the spatial positioning of various?sized centers in some unstraightforward way, weighting the influence of their dialects based on a gravitic calculation of distance and size. This would begin to mimic the way dialects of towns and cities interact with one another according to their spatial arrangements. Weighting for the effect of distance and size on attractive force could parameterize for different hypotheses about mobility and urbanization in the model society. A further step would be to place and populate the cities according to real?world data, and seed their dialects according to observed patterns. While it is highly unlikely that any real trends would be recreated or explained, this would add piquancy to the modeling process and perhaps even brew some entirely speculative hypotheses regarding the spatial mechanisms driving real?world patterns.

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