I suspect this is a dream confined to sci-fi for at least a few decades, but, I'd like to know if anyone has ever tried to create a computer model for the creation of a language, or at least researched into the same. Or perhaps attempted to simulate/extrapolate the development of an existing language.

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    There are lots of people who invent languages, but you seem to have something else in mind. Can you clarify? I'm not sure I understand the question. – JSBձոգչ Oct 2 '14 at 15:28
  • There's a great book, In the Land of Invented Languages. And there's a great post about the book on a great site about languages: languagehat.com/the-bookshelf-in-the-land-of-invented-languages – hippietrail Oct 2 '14 at 15:46
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    You're right, I'm not thinking about conlangs. Rather some model that predicts how a natural language might change and develop over time. – Lou Oct 2 '14 at 15:52

This would be a fascinating project if it were feasible, but unfortunately it's well beyond the current state of knowledge about linguistic change; and even if we knew much more than we do, it's still possible that language would turn out to be too complex and ill-bounded a system to model at all adequately.

We don't know enough about how, and especially why, language changes to be able to model it. For example, we know what kinds of sound changes are frequent in languages, but we don't know why they happen when they do in the languages that they do. We know morphological analogy happens, but we can't predict when it will happen and in what direction. Syntactic change is even more mysterious. Etc.

Many of these phenomena have their roots in realms that are not (or not purely) linguistic, e.g. acoustics, sound perception, communicational pragmatics, or even random facts of cultural history, so you'd have to model all these as well. And language change arises from usage, not from the abstract structure of a language, so you'd have to model language use in all its contexts. Basically, you'd have to model a world.

This is not to say that it's impossible to model very specific, limited aspects of language change. Adam Albright claims he has a model that successfully predicts the direction of analogical change given certain usage statistics. Probably there are other such small-scale attempts out there, which maybe others here can mention. But a general model of language change, unfortunately, is almost certainly more than a few decades away.


Nobody, has modeled the whole of language development (to many moving parts, although a kind of a SIMS game with language would probably not be out of the realm of possibility). But there have been models of certain parts.

Some people working on the newly opened area of language evolution/origins have conducted experiments that they used to model the changes in meaning. Simon Kirby is well known for his experiments. There's a whole centre for Language Evolution and Computing at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/lec. He describes some of his models in this lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3-R3Ii35nY and more details can be found here: https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/3283.

Of course, modeling of language change goes all the way to the postulation of sound change laws in the Indo European languages. But computational modeling is much more recent and not nearly as common. Most models are concerned with child language development or adult learning.

  • Luc Steels did a lot of the early work in this domain, and Andy Wedel has done a fair amount of work in models of sound change. I did a bit of agent-based modeling work (following up on initial work by Mark Dras) looking at the evolution of systems of vowel harmony. – Fred Oct 8 '14 at 21:49
  • A Sims game with language development would at least be a nice break from the sim-speak they already use. – Joe Z. Oct 10 '14 at 2:32

It depends on the scale you're referring to. There is certainly active research in artificial language learning, agent-based and social network modeling of language evolution, novel language development by robot agents, social effects (micro and macro) on linguistic change, word formation constraints/factors, 'telephone game' experiments on language convergence, and so on.

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