How humans transmit language: horizontal transmission matches word frequencies among peers on Twitter

J R Soc Interface. 2018 Feb;15(139):20170738. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2017.0738.


Language transmission, the passing on of language features such as words between people, is the process of inheritance that underlies linguistic evolution. To understand how language transmission works, we need a mechanistic understanding based on empirical evidence of lasting change of language usage. Here, we analysed 200 million online conversations to investigate transmission between individuals. We find that the frequency of word usage is inherited over conversations, rather than only the binary presence or absence of a word in a person's lexicon. We propose a mechanism for transmission whereby for each word someone encounters there is a chance they will use it more often. Using this mechanism, we measure that, for one word in around every hundred a person encounters, they will use that word more frequently. As more commonly used words are encountered more often, this means that it is the frequencies of words which are copied. Beyond this, our measurements indicate that this per-encounter mechanism is neutral and applies without any further distinction as to whether a word encountered in a conversation is commonly used or not. An important consequence of this is that frequencies of many words can be used in concert to observe and measure language transmission, and our results confirm this. These results indicate that our mechanism for transmission can be used to study language patterns and evolution within populations.

Keywords: Moran process; evolution of language; horizontal transmission; language transmission; linguistic evolution; word heritability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Linguistics*
  • Male
  • Social Media*