Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals

Via Simon Greenhill:

Dunn M, Greenhill SJ, Levinson SC, & Gray RD (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature.

Some colleagues and I have a new paper out in Nature showing that the evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. I’ve written an overview/FAQ on this paper here, and there’s a nice review of it here and here.

The Abstract:

Languages vary widely but not without limit. The central goal of linguistics is to describe the diversity of human languages and explain the constraints on that diversity. Generative linguists following Chomsky have claimed that linguistic diversity must be constrained by innate parameters that are set as a child learns a language. In contrast, other linguists following Greenberg have claimed that there are statistical tendencies for co-occurrence of traits reflecting universal systems biases, rather than absolute constraints or parametric variation. Here we use computational phylogenetic methods to address the nature of constraints on linguistic diversity in an evolutionary framework. First, contrary to the generative account of parameter setting, we show that the evolution of only a few word-order features of languages are strongly correlated. Second, contrary to the Greenbergian generalizations, we show that most observed functional dependencies between traits are lineage-specific rather than universal tendencies. These findings support the view that—at least with respect to word order—cultural evolution is the primary factor that determines linguistic structure, with the current state of a linguistic system shaping and constraining future states.


Two new Greenhill Papers

Simon Greenhill has just announced two new papers on applying phylogenetic techniques to the study of culture. No doubt I’ll be blogging about these at some point in the future. Below are the abstracts:

Continue reading “Two new Greenhill Papers”

New Blog: Culture Evolves!

… Well, new to me at least. It’s run by Fiona Jordan of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, and her latest post is an interview with one of my favourite researchers, Simon Greenhill (I didn’t know he designed a sudoku solving program). Also, after having done a little digging into her publications, I found the following forthcoming paper: The effect of population size and density on rates of linguistic evolution. Here is the abstract:

Evolutionary theory from population genetics predicts that demography may play an important role in determining the rate at which cultural and linguistic traits change over time. However, relatively few studies have explored this relationship for language at an appropriate scale and in a quantitative way, nor controlled for the problem of non-independence induced by the historical relationships between languages. Here we use phylogenetic trees of 351 Austronesian languages to test whether the rate of change in core vocabulary is affected by population size and population density. We detected a strong phylogenetic signal in both population size and density, indicating the need for historical control. We find a significant inverse relationship between lexical replacement and population size, no relationship with population density, and we confirm that splitting events influence lexical evolution. These results support the idea that a process analogous to genetic drift may be an important factor in lexical evolution. Furthermore, the strong phylogenetic signal in these demographic factors suggests that despite repeated population splits the social conditions that influence speech community size and density are maintained and inherited from one generation to the next.

I’m not going to say anything on a paper I haven’t yet read, other than it looks pretty cool and that more people should be considering the influence of demographic factors in linguistics.