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Languages Evolve In Rapid Bursts

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Scientists at the University of Reading have discovered that languages change and evolve in rapid bursts rather than in a steady pattern. The research investigates thousands of years of language evolution, and looks at the way in which languages split and evolve. It has long been accepted that the desire for a distinct social identity may cause languages to change quickly, but it has not previously been known whether such rapid bursts of change are a regular feature of the evolution of human language.

The findings show that initially, the basic vocabulary of newly formed languages develops and changes quite quickly, and this is then followed by longer periods of slower and gradual change.

Rapid bursts of change at the time of language splitting are important processes in language evolution, and the research has found that these account for between 10 and 33 % of the total divergence amongst the basic vocabularies of the language groups studied. The research used data to construct evolutionary tree diagrams to explore the relationships between languages. The diagrams describe the separate paths of evolution leading from a common ancestral language to a set of distinct languages at the tips of the tree.

Professor Mark Pagel from the University of Reading said “Our research suggests that rapid bursts of change occur in languages, and this reflects a human ability to adjust languages at critical times of cultural evolution, such as during the emergence of new and rival groups.

The emergence of American English took place when the American English Dictionary was introduced by Noah Webster. He insisted that ‘as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as Government’. This illustrates that language is not only used as a means of communication, but it is also important for social functions, including promoting group identity and unity.”
Science 1 February 2008: 588 DOI: 10.1126/science.1149683
Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts
Quentin D. Atkinson,1* Andrew Meade,1 Chris Venditti,1 Simon J. Greenhill,2 Mark Pagel1,3{dagger}

Linguists speculate that human languages often evolve in rapid or punctuational bursts, sometimes associated with their emergence from other languages, but this phenomenon has never been demonstrated. We used vocabulary data from three of the world’s major language groups—Bantu, Indo-European, and Austronesian—to show that 10 to 33% of the overall vocabulary differences among these languages arose from rapid bursts of change associated with language-splitting events. Our findings identify a general tendency for increased rates of linguistic evolution in fledgling languages, perhaps arising from a linguistic founder effect or a desire to establish a distinct social identity.

1 School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AS, UK.
2 Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand.
3 Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road, Santa Fe, NM 87501, USA.

* Present address: Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6QS, UK.

{dagger} To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:

Written by huehueteotl

February 7, 2008 at 4:42 pm

One Response

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    April 15, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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