Fading of collective attention shapes the evolution of linguistic variants

Diego E Shalom, Mariano Sigman, Gabriel Mindlin, Marcos A Trevisan

Language change involves the competition between alternative linguistic forms (1). The spontaneous evolution of these forms typically results in monotonic growths or decays (2, 3) like in winner-take-all attractor behaviors. In the case of the Spanish past subjunctive, the spontaneous evolution of its two competing forms (ended in -ra and -se) was perturbed by the appearance of the Royal Spanish Academy in 1713, which enforced the spelling of both forms as perfectly interchangeable variants (4), at a moment in which the -ra form was dominant (5). Time series extracted from a massive corpus of books (6) reveal that this regulation in fact produced a transient renewed interest for the old form -se which, once faded, left the -ra again as the dominant form up to the present day. We show that time series are successfully explained by a two-dimensional linear model that integrates an imitative and a novelty component. The model reveals that the temporal scale over which collective attention fades is in inverse proportion to the verb frequency. The integration of the two basic mechanisms of imitation and attention to novelty allows to understand diverse competing objects, with lifetimes that range from hours for memes and news (7, 8) to decades for verbs, suggesting the existence of a general mechanism underlying cultural evolution.

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