Prediction-Driven Instability and the Time Scale of Language Change

Department of Mathematical Sciences Colloquium Series presents Dr. W. Garrett Mitchener, College of Charleston
Friday, August 27, 2021 3 p.m.
Zoom event, email Kristen Roland, to participate.
This event is free and open to the public.

 Human languages are stable on long time scales but have a tendency to change dramatically in a matter of a few decades. Some changes can be attributed to contact between languages, but others seem to be essentially spontaneous. Dr. W. Garrett Mitchener will describe a stochastic dynamical system that models a population of speakers that can change spontaneously from one language to another on an appropriate time scale.

Certain details of its formulation are important for getting the correct behavior. The phase space must be in at least two dimensions, and there must be some form of momentum. These features are incorporated by dividing the population into age groups, and using the observation that children seem to be able to detect correlations between language variation and age. Surprisingly, it also turns out to be necessary for adult speech to include random variation.

Mitchener is a professor in the Department of Mathematics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He studies dynamical systems and probability, with applications to biology and linguistics.

Some of his recent projects include modeling how children learn the syntax and semantics of raising and control verbs, and how social structure can lead to spontaneous language changes.


About the Department of Mathematical Sciences
The Department of Mathematical Sciences offers undergraduate degrees in actuarial science and mathematics, with concentrations in business, computation, life sciences, physical sciences, secondary teaching and statistics, plus a general, self-designed concentration. The department also offers the Master of Arts in mathematics, with concentrations in college teaching and secondary teaching. Learn more at

Dr. W. Garrett Mitchener speaker graphic
Published: Aug 24, 2021 1:58am