Dozens of researchers from various fields are gathering at SFI this month to discuss development of computational models that would help linguists understand how languages change and, on a larger scale, possibly address some of humanity’s biggest questions.

“Where do we come from and what’s our history?” says SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Dan Hruschka. “Language can provide a lens through which to view these questions.”

The Feb. 18-20 workshop, Building Integrated Models of Linguistic Change, is organized by Dan, Morten Christiansen (Cornell University), and SFI Professor Steve Lansing. (For more information and a list of speakers: www.santafe. edu/events/)

In recent years researchers have built linguistic models focusing, typically, on narrow aspects of linguistic structure or on individual agents of linguistic change. Models integrating a greater set of linguistic problems would prove useful, says Dan, particularly if they account for processes occurring across time scales and levels of linguistic structure, as well as those resulting from both internal and external influences.

“There is an emerging cohort of computationally trained experts in linguistic evolution,” he says. “This is a good place to foster conversation among those people.”

Beyond its computational focus, the workshop is a first-of-its-kind opportunity to bring together the many SFI collaborators studying language-related topics from a variety of fields and perspectives. Speakers represent such fields as linguistics, computation, statistics, genetics, and sociology.

SFI President and Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West says the integration of current and potential future projects in language is the subject of an SFI Science Board analysis in 2008.

One central SFI effort, the Evolution of Human Languages (EHL) project, seeks to investigate degrees of genetic relationship among the world’s languages. EHL researchers have begun compiling a comprehensive network of etymological data that could lead to a better understanding of language ancestry dating back many millennia. SFI Distinguished Fellow and Trustee SFI External Professor Rob Axtell (Brookings Institution) described the use of two agent-based models to understand rm formation as a social phenomenon. One model depended on individual choice, and the other abstracted away individual behavior completely. Both methods produce the same results. In other words, says Aaron, some social phenomena can be viewed in two ways, one where individual choice matters, and one where it doesn’t.

David Gibson (University of Pennsylvania) discussed how the human desire to t in socially with others can shape the range of acceptable individual choices, in conversation or when standing in line, for example. “Thus, in some contexts, you might not even need that large a group before social constraints cause people to behave in highly predictable ways,” says Aaron.

Workshop participants also noted similarities and differences — methodologies, language, and level of investment, for example — between physics and sociology. One important difference is the relative dif culty in obtaining high-quality data in sociology, although computing and microelectronic technologies are increasingly benefitting sociologists, says Aaron.

Matthew Salganik (Princeton University) described research to understand fads in music, with results suggesting that the perception of the success of a pop culture product can become a self-fulilling prophecy. The study is an example of large scale research made possible by the internet.

The workshop was successful because it brought together natural and social scientists, who, says Aaron, “had a productive and wide-ranging discussion about the scientific, cultural, and institutional factors impinging on our ability to answer the question of whether there is a physics of society.”

One outcome of the workshop, he says, might be a summary piece for Science or Nature, written by a small but interdisciplinary group of workshop participants, about the prospects and future of physics of society research.

For a complete list of workshop speakers and their presentation abstracts, visit SFI’s events page at events.