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Studying The Evolution Of Language | Touchstone Words

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Studying the Evolution of Language

By Katie Lee on 2018-10-18

Using various thesauruses of the english language from different years, researchers collaborating from different universities in America have developed an algorithm to determine how words change in meaning over time.


In modern times we see words changing to adopt a more modern meaning. One such example would be the word fantastic. You may have not known that years ago, the word fantastic would be used to describe something that existed only in one’s mind. Now, of course, the word describes something amazing.

"If you look at the history of a word, meanings of that word tend to shift or extend over time," says Yang Xu, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia.

But Xu went further into this occurrence, questioning why the meaning of words change. He also aimed to create an algorithm to predict the meaning of a certain word over time.

The meaning of a word is shaped by environmental factors such as current existing technology as well as political and economic conditions in a specific country or even the world.

Xu describes how the algorithm will work by saying that its “prediction is that a word should connect closely to related meanings in the space available similar to finding nearest neighbours in semantic space resulting in a chain that efficiently links novel meanings to the existing meanings of a word." This essentially means that the algorithm will use closely related words to predict later meanings of words.

Currently the project is only working with the english language but Xu and other team members fully understand that other languages have meaning shifts in their words just the same. In the near future, they plan to recruit native speakers of other languages onto their project in order to gauge past and present meanings of words in languages such as chinese (cantonese and mandarin), german, spanish and others.

But what could possibly be the use for such a device? The team hopes to advance machine learning of language devices such as tone, mood. They hope to allow AI technology to understand when to use certain words over others based on the possible meaning the words could convey. With this, AI personalities could soon learn techniques such as sarcasm, irony among other things.

Xu says, "A potential research direction is the machine interpretation of novel word usages such as those in non-literal expressions. If I say 'grasp' I can refer to 'grasping an object' versus 'grasping an idea'. Humans understand this usage fairly quickly, even though it appears novel. Understanding these phenomena would require the development of computational tools that would go beyond the algorithms of chaining."

Aside from this use, however, it is possible that the device could imply be able to expand the field of language study to analyze words a long time ago to the present, expanding even into the near future (a decade or two in the future) when words could be very different from today.

Finally, Xu is also curious about the correlation between historic language meanings and usage to child language learning. He believes that the meanings of words are based off of chain meanings. For instance, if one word changes, another closely related word will change and so on. S he is curious to see if this method is actually how words change in meaning.

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