Alexandra Simonenko - CAUSALITY


The project “Modeling causes of language change and conservatism” (CAUSALITY) aims at investigating causes of language change and conservativity using formal theoretical modeling, artificial agent simulations, and empirical data from historical treebanks of three West Germanic languages: Dutch, English, and Low German. A three-way comparative investigation of exceptionally well-documented evolutionary trajectories will be coupled with semantico-pragmatic and computational modeling, positioning the project at the intersection of three young and intensely developing fields: statistical analysis of historical treebanks , formal diachronic semantics, and artificial agent modeling. In addition to the theoretical objectives, the project aims at significantly enlarging an existing small treebank of historical Dutch. Led by the Principal Investigator Prof. Alexandra Simonenko (Ghent University, Belgium), the core team of CAUSALITY will include a PhD student and two postdoctoral researchers. In addition, it will involve a number of annotators involved in the construction of the historical Dutch treebank. The project will be carried out between 09/2022 and 09/2027.

Project description

Universally, human language changes over time. One fundamental assumption about language change is that it originates at the level of an individual as a shift in frequencies with which a particular variant of linguistic expression is chosen over another. Conceiving of language change as the loss of an equilibrium in a system of stochastically used grammatical options, a change presupposes an emerging disturbing factor or a cause. A change can then be viewed as an adaptation process whereby in a linguistic environment affected by a disturbing factor a hitherto marginal grammatical option begins to create a certain communicative advantage and grows in frequency. We might then in principle expect a fast transition to the new variant in the speech of an individual, given the general learning abilities of humans. However, another fundamental property of language change is that it proceeds gradually over generations. Therefore, there must be powerful conservative factors at play pushing against the communicative advantage presented by the new variant. It has been suggested that the contrast between the speed of learning projected based on an individual’s cognitive abilities and the attested pace of language change may be due to the social aspect of language, whereby the communicative advantage of an innovation is balanced off by the necessity of group synchronization. Since many social coordination tasks can be completed within individual’s lifetime, the question stands open which properties of language are responsible for a relatively slow group coordination when it comes to grammatical shifts. This project aims at understanding, via game-theoretic and reinforcement learning modeling, the interplay between the causes of language change and conservatism. The models will be evaluated against the empirical material from three West Germanic languages, which includes creating a treebank of historical Dutch.


The objectives of CAUSALITY include, in the chronological order,

  • building a large open access treebank of historical Dutch,
  • treebank-based analysis of the qualitative and quantitative patterns of 1) subject encoding and 2) existential presupposition marking in three West-Germanic languages
  • game-theoretic modeling of communication strategies based on historical data
  • investigating parameters affecting the speed of language change using artificial agents

Role of Ghent University

The project will be embedded in the large and thriving historical linguistics research group DiaLing at Ghent University. The PhD candidate will also receive training within Ghent University Doctoral School. In addition to the members of the core team of CAUSALITY, Ghent University will provide infrastructure for Dutch historical treebank annotators, as well as for the international workshops organized at various stages of the project.


to be announced


Prof. Alexandra Simonenko
Department of Linguistics
+32 (0) 478 40 08 63