The dynamics of norm change in the cultural evolution of language

What happens when a new social convention replaces an old one? While the possible forces favoring norm change—such as institutions or committed activists—have been identified for a long time, little is known about how a population adopts a new convention, due to the difficulties of finding representative data. Here, we address this issue by looking at changes that occurred to 2,541 orthographic and lexical norms in English and Spanish through the analysis of a large corpora of books published between the years 1800 and 2008. We detect three markedly distinct patterns in the data, depending on whether the behavioral change results from the action of a formal institution, an informal authority, or a spontaneous process of unregulated evolution. We propose a simple evolutionary model able to capture all of the observed behaviors, and we show that it reproduces quantitatively the empirical data. This work identifies general mechanisms of norm change, and we anticipate that it will be of interest to researchers investigating the cultural evolution of language and, more broadly, human collective behavior.