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Revisiting transmission and diffusion: An agent-based model of vowel chain shifts across large communities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 August 2013

James N. Stanford
Dartmouth College
Laurence A. Kenny
Dartmouth College


In this study, we present the first agent-based simulation of vowel chain shifts across large communities, providing a parsimonious reinterpretation of Labov's (2007) notions of transmission, diffusion, and incrementation. Labov determined that parent-to-child transmission faithfully reproduces structural patterns such as the Northern Cities Shift (NCS), but adult-to-adult diffusion does not. NCS is transmitted faithfully to new generations of U.S. Inland North children. But St. Louis speakers, depending only on adult-adult contact, only attain an incomplete, unsystematic version. Labov (2007) attributed the difference to children's superior language-learning ability; transmission and diffusion are categorically different processes in that approach. By contrast, our multiagent simulation suggests that such transmission/diffusion effects can be derived by simple density of interactions and simple exemplar learning; we also find that incrementation is a natural outcome of this model. Unlike Labov (2007), this model does not require a dichotomy between transmission and diffusion. While dichotomous assumptions about child versus adult learning may be necessary in other contexts, our results suggest that the NCS effects in Labov (2007) may be explained economically in terms of simple density of interactions between speakers. Our results also provide an agent-based perspective supporting and explicating the notion of speech community.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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