Seminar: The Complexity of Language: Scale as a Conceptual Hook with Nick Enfield

Friday, October 6th at 6pm ET / 10pm GMT
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1.5 hour free seminar and Q&A session


Language is a sprawling system of systems. It is therefore naturally thought of in ‘complex adaptive system’ terms, but this idea is yet to make an impact in the language sciences. One reason is that language systems are more abstract than biological systems, and it is not clear whether, and if so how, the system concept applies to language. Another is that if “everything is connected” then it is hard to know where to start. We need conceptual hooks. This paper proposes such a hook: the concept of scale.

A century ago, biologists including Huxley and Kleiber discovered allometric scaling in the growth of biological systems. They found a sublinear scaling ratio between body mass and metabolic rate in mammals. Such dependencies are accounted for by causal relations between interdependent systems, as found in the mammalian body. Later work by West and colleagues found similar allometric scaling relations in other kinds of ‘circulatory’ systems such as electricity grids and road networks. They developed a theory to account for the scaling observations, invoking the three concepts of optimization, space-filling, and terminal function.

Could language be thought of in this way? This is worth asking, because language has long been thought of as something like an ‘organism’ or at least a complex system. We consider this question in three steps. First, we review some sites of scale differences in language, with examples from sound systems, grammatical systems, and speaker populations. Second, we review some example of scale dependency in language (candidate cases of allometry), with examples from sound systems, vocabulary, and group size. Third, we ask whether the concept of allometric scaling from biology can be applied to language. I speculate that language can indeed be thought of as a ‘circulatory system’ whose function is to deliver information and action.


About the Speaker:

Nick Enfield is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, Australia. He was a staff scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands from 2000-2014. His research on language, culture, cognition, and social interaction is based on extensive fieldwork in mainland Southeast Asia, especially Laos. In his research on language contact, he has applied evolutionary thinking to language change, conceived of in biased-transmission terms. His books include Linguistic Epidemiology (2003), Roots of Human Sociality (2006, with Stephen Levinson), Dynamics of Human Diversity (2011), Natural Causes of Language (2014), Consequences of Language (2022, with Jack Sidnell), and Language vs. Reality: Why Language is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists (2022).