Language and Social Networks

Everyone speaks a language. Some people speak two and yet others speak multiple languages. Yet, the one common aspect that stands out amongst all of these languages is the fact that they are all extremely different from one another. This, understandably, leads us to ask the question, ‘How did language evolve?’

Let’s consider English. The evolution of English takes root with the Anglo-Saxons (well, kind of). The language we now call English is actually a blend of many languages. Even the original Anglo-Saxon was already a blend of the dialects of west Germanic tribes living along the North Sea coast. Later, in the 800s, the Northmen (Vikings) came to England, mostly from Denmark, and settled in with the Anglo-Saxons. They were followed by William the Conqueror and his Norman supports who invaded England sometime in the 11th century. These men, having originally been from normandy, spoke a norman dialect of french and used this for their day-to-day interactions.

English since then has been absorbing vocabulary from a huge number of sources.  French, the language of diplomacy for Europe for centuries, Latin, the language of the church, and Greek, the language of philosophy and science, contributed many words, especially the more “educated” ones.  Culturally specific words from other regions of Europe have also been added. As time passed on, there was the incorporation of Asian languages which began with the emergence of the asian provinces as world powers. Not to mention the incredible number of new words that are created all the time in order to accommodate a new object, emotion, or any tangible and/or intangible aspect of life.

The recurrent theme during the course of this evolution has always remained the same. Some form of interaction between two cultures leads to a gradual modification of a certain language. As these interactions build over the course of time, so too does language change radically.

In the field of sociolinguisticssocial network is a term used to describe the structure of a particular speech community. Social networks are composed of a “web of ties” (Lesley Milroy) between individuals, and the structure of a network will vary depending on the types of connections it is composed of. Social network theory (as used by sociolinguists) posits that social networks, and the interactions between members within the networks, are a driving force behind language change

Social network interactions are really the driving force behind all of humanity. We exist because we interact with our neighbors and this holds true for even something as intangible as Language. Modeling the spread of language is, in many ways, quite similar to modeling the spread of ‘cultural information’ through a network. It can be argued that the existence and/or nature of a language is primarily defined by the existence and/or nature of a specific culture.


Observe the network described above which shows different cultures and the links describing the interactions taking place between the cultures. If you can visualize the node ‘F’ as the aggressor looking to expand it’s reach, pretty soon, it will have occupied either of the blue nodes or the green nodes. Let’s assume that F decides to ‘invade’ SP. A cultural war of sorts ensues, the outcome of which reflects which culture was more dominant during that period. A similar ‘game’ is played between all of the nodes that interact with each other. Based on which one is more dominant and influential than the other, the resulting culture that  emerges reflects an amalgamation of the two previous cultures. As a result, the language that evolves is the result of the amalgamation of the two parent languages.

Interesting how this happens, isn’t it? Given a certain graph of interactions, we merely observe how the graph would change if a certain node were to attempt to press into a different node’s territory. This also leads to an interesting observation. As long as all the nodes are suitably well connected and there exists one dominant culture, that culture is going to end up influencing every other node in the network. This is possibly what happened when the British decided to try and ‘take over the world’. English is now a dominant force in today’s world it’s influence is felt in almost every corner.

The thing to be noted here, however, is that this evolution takes place over a period of a number of years and it almost impossible to set up an experiment to study this evolutionary process. The challenge thus, to accurately model the dynamics of the spread of cultural influence remains great.





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