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The linguist’s Drosophila: Experiments in language change

  • Gareth Roberts ORCID logo EMAIL logo
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


Although experimental methods are used in the study of language change, it has been claimed that there is no analogue of the biologist’s Drosophila – no means, in other words, of observing change in the laboratory. Here it is argued that this pessimism is unwarranted, and that there is in fact something equivalent: a set of experimental methods developed originally to study the emergence and evolution of language, and which involve the use of novel “laboratory languages” to play games with a social component. These methods are described, and arguments are made in favor of their broader application to questions of change in modern language. Ideally (as has begun to occur in a few cases) this should involve interdisciplinary collaborations, and it would both open new doors for the testing of hypotheses and bring researchers in the field of language evolution into contact with a vast store of real-world data. Concerns about the authenticity of laboratory data are not unreasonable, but less pressing than might be imagined, and in fact should call for precisely the kind of interdisciplinary approach advocated here. This can only benefit everyone involved.


The author thanks Bruno Galantucci for helpful comments on a very early version of this paper, as well as Bill Labov, Ira Noveck, Betsy Sneller, and Meredith Tamminga for enlightening discussions on relevant issues, without which this paper would not be what it is.


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Received: 2016-10-11
Accepted: 2017-1-19
Published Online: 2017-8-1

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