Study shows ancient relations between language families

September 20, 2012, Max Planck Society
This is a network representation showing how language families cluster based on their stability profiles. Credit: Dan Dediu/MPI for Psycholingustics

How do language families evolve over many thousands of years? How stable over time are structural features of languages? Researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen introduced a new method using Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to analyse the evolution of structural features in more than 50 language families. Their paper 'Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages' was published online on September 20, 2012 in PLoS ONE.

Language is one of the best examples of a cultural evolutionary system. How vocabularies evolve has been extensively studied, but researchers know relatively little about the stability of structural properties of language - pholonoly, morphology and syntax. In their paper, Dan Dediu (MPI's Language and Genetics Department) and Stephen Levinson (director of MPI's Department) asked how stable over time the structural features of languages are – aspects like , the inventory of sounds, or plural marking of nouns.

"If at least some of them are relatively stable over long time periods, they promise a way to get at relationships," the researchers state in their paper. "But opinion has been divided, some researchers holding that universally there is a hierarchy of stability for such features, others claiming that individual show their own idiosyncrasies in what features are stable and which not."

Ancient relations between language families

Using a large database and many alternative methods Dediu and Levinson show that both positions are right: there are universal tendencies for some features to be more stable than others, but individual language families have their own distinctive profile. These distinctive profiles can then be used to probe ancient relations between what are today independent language families.

"Using this technique we find for instance probable connections between the languages of the Americas and those of NE Eurasia, presumably dating back to the peopling of the Americas 12,000 years or more ago," Levinson explains. "We also find likely connections between most of the Eurasian language families, presumably pre-dating the split off of Indo-European around 9000 years ago."

Universal tendencies and distinctive profiles

This work thus has implications for our understanding of differential rates of language change, and by identifying distinctive patterns of change it provides a new window into very old historical processes that have shaped the linguistic map of the world. It shows that there is no conflict between the existence of universal tendencies and factors specific to a language family or geographic area. It also makes the strong point that information about deep relationships between languages is contained in abstract, higher-level properties derived from large sets of structural features as opposed to just a few highly stable aspects of language. In addition, this work introduces innovative quantitative techniques for finding and testing the statistical reliability of both universal tendencies and distinctive language-family profiles.

"Our findings strongly support the existence of a universal tendency across language families for some specific structural features to be intrinsically stable across language families and geographic regions," Dediu concludes.

Explore further: Historical context guides language development

More information: Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C.: Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages,

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1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2012
The 'universal tendency' is labeled sound.
Don't beat around the bush.
Define 'stability' - at least within the context you use the labeling.
This you owe to all interested in your research.
Thank you. You may continue now.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2012

Define 'stability'
-- tausch

: a measure of the tendency to stay unchanged -- to not mutate over time, to lack variation from place to place.

like genetic stability.
Standing Bear
not rated yet Sep 21, 2012
Profanity is probably the oldest words in any and all languages, and may carry similarity in all languages to some extent.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2012

...a measure....


What is the unit of measure used here?
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2012
I wonder if the apparent relation between North-Caucasian and Australian languages is factual, what could it tell us about Australian migration routes and the Denisovan heritage?

@ Tausch:

What are you, lazy? Why don't you read the paper if the Max Planck Society press release isn't enough?

"Essentially, the stability profile of a language family represents the relative stabilities (from the most stable to the most unstable) of a set of structural features in this family. The stability profile of a family is an abstract, mathematical concept which is in itself completely agnostic as to the existence or not of universal tendencies, language family-specific and intra-family processes. Only _sets_ of stability profiles computed for several families can shed light on such questions through their mutual relationships."

They use methods borrowed from references to estimate a relative, standardized rank matrix of language feature rates - consistent comparative rate meaning stability.
not rated yet Sep 21, 2012

Look up the definitions yourself.

This you owe to all interested in your comments.
[No "thank you's", but you may go ahead and insert a correspondingly arrogant proclamation here.]
1 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2012
An acoustical approach for universals in the human language aligns closer with scientific method - especially for the null hypothesis.

A statical approach for universals in the spoken human language aligns with bias of the researchers.

The proclamation is:
Lost in (topological/geographical) space.

1 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2012
Statical = statistical
Typo correction.

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