Sam Tilsen Awarded Cornell New Frontier Grant

Prof. Sam Tilsen (Linguistics) and Prof. James Sethna (Physics) were awarded a Cornell New Frontier Grant to investigate the emergence of dialects in networks of speakers with random, constrained interactions. The project investigates the following questions: How "spontaneous" is the emergence of dialects? What are the conditions under which the speech patterns of individuals organize into different speech styles? There are many reasons why dialectal variation arises within languages: various geographic, historical, and socioeconomic factors can create asymmetries that allow for different ways of speaking to emerge. Due to the complexity of these factors, along with logistical challenges in observing speech behavior on sufficiently large spatial and temporal scales, it is challenging to pinpoint the causes of dialect-scale linguistic variation. And yet, the prevalence of such variation raises an important question: is dialectal variation inevitable? This question is not only of theoretical interest, but also has practical applications for speech-based analysis of group dynamics. Tilsen and Sethna adopt a hybrid computational and experimental strategy to study dialect emergence. Their computational approach is based on an analogy between the evolution of speech behavior in networks of speakers and the emergence of large-scale order in physical systems that are undergoing relaxation processes. Their experimental approach involves longitudinal studies in which pairs of speakers are recorded while playing an online map-navigation game.

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Sam Tilsen and James Sethna