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Concept: Historical linguistics


One of the oldest problems in linguistics is reconstructing the words that appeared in the protolanguages from which modern languages evolved. Identifying the forms of these ancient languages makes it possible to evaluate proposals about the nature of language change and to draw inferences about human history. Protolanguages are typically reconstructed using a painstaking manual process known as the comparative method. We present a family of probabilistic models of sound change as well as algorithms for performing inference in these models. The resulting system automatically and accurately reconstructs protolanguages from modern languages. We apply this system to 637 Austronesian languages, providing an accurate, large-scale automatic reconstruction of a set of protolanguages. Over 85% of the system’s reconstructions are within one character of the manual reconstruction provided by a linguist specializing in Austronesian languages. Being able to automatically reconstruct large numbers of languages provides a useful way to quantitatively explore hypotheses about the factors determining which sounds in a language are likely to change over time. We demonstrate this by showing that the reconstructed Austronesian protolanguages provide compelling support for a hypothesis about the relationship between the function of a sound and its probability of changing that was first proposed in 1955.

Concepts: Historical linguistics


Crowdsourcing linguistic phenomena with smartphone applications is relatively new. In linguistics, apps have predominantly been developed to create pronunciation dictionaries, to train acoustic models, and to archive endangered languages. This paper presents the first account of how apps can be used to collect data suitable for documenting language change: we created an app, Dialäkt Äpp (DÄ), which predicts users' dialects. For 16 linguistic variables, users select a dialectal variant from a drop-down menu. DÄ then geographically locates the user’s dialect by suggesting a list of communes where dialect variants most similar to their choices are used. Underlying this prediction are 16 maps from the historical Linguistic Atlas of German-speaking Switzerland, which documents the linguistic situation around 1950. Where users disagree with the prediction, they can indicate what they consider to be their dialect’s location. With this information, the 16 variables can be assessed for language change. Thanks to the playfulness of its functionality, DÄ has reached many users; our linguistic analyses are based on data from nearly 60,000 speakers. Results reveal a relative stability for phonetic variables, while lexical and morphological variables seem more prone to change. Crowdsourcing large amounts of dialect data with smartphone apps has the potential to complement existing data collection techniques and to provide evidence that traditional methods cannot, with normal resources, hope to gather. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize a range of methodological caveats, including sparse knowledge of users' linguistic backgrounds (users only indicate age, sex) and users' self-declaration of their dialect. These are discussed and evaluated in detail here. Findings remain intriguing nevertheless: as a means of quality control, we report that traditional dialectological methods have revealed trends similar to those found by the app. This underlines the validity of the crowdsourcing method. We are presently extending DÄ architecture to other languages.

Concepts: Linguistics, Language, Dialect, English language, Programming language, German language, Semiotics, Historical linguistics


In contrast with animal communication systems, diversity is characteristic of almost every aspect of human language. Languages variously employ tones, clicks, or manual signs to signal differences in meaning; some languages lack the noun-verb distinction (e.g., Straits Salish), whereas others have a proliferation of fine-grained syntactic categories (e.g., Tzeltal); and some languages do without morphology (e.g., Mandarin), while others pack a whole sentence into a single word (e.g., Cayuga). A challenge for evolutionary biology is to reconcile the diversity of languages with the high degree of biological uniformity of their speakers. Here, we model processes of language change and geographical dispersion and find a consistent pressure for flexible learning, irrespective of the language being spoken. This pressure arises because flexible learners can best cope with the observed high rates of linguistic change associated with divergent cultural evolution following human migration. Thus, rather than genetic adaptations for specific aspects of language, such as recursion, the coevolution of genes and fast-changing linguistic structure provides the biological basis for linguistic diversity. Only biological adaptations for flexible learning combined with cultural evolution can explain how each child has the potential to learn any human language.

Concepts: Genetics, Evolution, Species, Linguistics, Word, Semiotics, Charles Darwin, Historical linguistics


Zipf’s law on word frequency and Heaps' law on the growth of distinct words are observed in Indo-European language family, but it does not hold for languages like Chinese, Japanese and Korean. These languages consist of characters, and are of very limited dictionary sizes. Extensive experiments show that: (i) The character frequency distribution follows a power law with exponent close to one, at which the corresponding Zipf’s exponent diverges. Indeed, the character frequency decays exponentially in the Zipf’s plot. (ii) The number of distinct characters grows with the text length in three stages: It grows linearly in the beginning, then turns to a logarithmical form, and eventually saturates. A theoretical model for writing process is proposed, which embodies the rich-get-richer mechanism and the effects of limited dictionary size. Experiments, simulations and analytical solutions agree well with each other. This work refines the understanding about Zipf’s and Heaps' laws in human language systems.

Concepts: Language, Exponential growth, Exponential function, Zipf's law, Historical linguistics, Exponentials, Language family, Indo-European languages


Phonology and syntax represent two layers of sound combination central to language’s expressive power. Comparative animal studies represent one approach to understand the origins of these combinatorial layers. Traditionally, phonology, where meaningless sounds form words, has been considered a simpler combination than syntax, and thus should be more common in animals. A linguistically informed review of animal call sequences demonstrates that phonology in animal vocal systems is rare, whereas syntax is more widespread. In the light of this and the absence of phonology in some languages, we hypothesize that syntax, present in all languages, evolved before phonology.

Concepts: Bird, Phonology, Linguistics, Language, Semiotics, Natural language, Historical linguistics, August Schleicher


A word like Huh?-used as a repair initiator when, for example, one has not clearly heard what someone just said- is found in roughly the same form and function in spoken languages across the globe. We investigate it in naturally occurring conversations in ten languages and present evidence and arguments for two distinct claims: that Huh? is universal, and that it is a word. In support of the first, we show that the similarities in form and function of this interjection across languages are much greater than expected by chance. In support of the second claim we show that it is a lexical, conventionalised form that has to be learnt, unlike grunts or emotional cries. We discuss possible reasons for the cross-linguistic similarity and propose an account in terms of convergent evolution. Huh? is a universal word not because it is innate but because it is shaped by selective pressures in an interactional environment that all languages share: that of other-initiated repair. Our proposal enhances evolutionary models of language change by suggesting that conversational infrastructure can drive the convergent cultural evolution of linguistic items.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Culture, Linguistics, Language, Semiotics, Natural language, Historical linguistics


Understanding how and why language subsystems differ in their evolutionary dynamics is a fundamental question for historical and comparative linguistics. One key dynamic is the rate of language change. While it is commonly thought that the rapid rate of change hampers the reconstruction of deep language relationships beyond 6,000-10,000 y, there are suggestions that grammatical structures might retain more signal over time than other subsystems, such as basic vocabulary. In this study, we use a Dirichlet process mixture model to infer the rates of change in lexical and grammatical data from 81 Austronesian languages. We show that, on average, most grammatical features actually change faster than items of basic vocabulary. The grammatical data show less schismogenesis, higher rates of homoplasy, and more bursts of contact-induced change than the basic vocabulary data. However, there is a core of grammatical and lexical features that are highly stable. These findings suggest that different subsystems of language have differing dynamics and that careful, nuanced models of language change will be needed to extract deeper signal from the noise of parallel evolution, areal readaptation, and contact.

Concepts: Evolutionary biology, Linguistics, Language, Grammar, Semantics, Historical linguistics, Language family, Parallel evolution


There are two competing hypotheses for the origin of the Indo-European language family. The conventional view places the homeland in the Pontic steppes about 6000 years ago. An alternative hypothesis claims that the languages spread from Anatolia with the expansion of farming 8000 to 9500 years ago. We used Bayesian phylogeographic approaches, together with basic vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages, to explicitly model the expansion of the family and test these hypotheses. We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin. Both the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago. These results highlight the critical role that phylogeographic inference can play in resolving debates about human prehistory.

Concepts: Europe, German language, Historical linguistics, Language family, Indo-European languages, Proto-Indo-European language, Tarim mummies, Celtic languages


The negative bias accompanying the terms left and left-handers has long interested researchers. This paper examines a large number of languages of Indo-European and non-Indo-European origin for such biasing. One surprising outcome is that, within the Indo-European language family, the terms for right and left do not go back to one set of antonyms but have their etymological roots in a number of different core semantic concepts. As in the non-Indo-European languages, right is almost always thought of positively, whereas left is negatively connotated. This is interpreted as the outcome of a universal human evaluation process, partly based on the principle of embodiment. The terms for right never have, in any of the examined languages, a negative bias; the words for left, usually never positively biased, were turned into euphemisms in three language groups (Scandinavian, Greek, and Avestan). On one interpretation, this seems to be an act of historical political correctness, corroborating the negative attitude cultures have for left-handers, very likely an outcome of discrimination of minorities.

Concepts: Linguistics, Language, Semantics, Greek language, Historical linguistics, Language family, Indo-European languages, Ancient Greek


There are two very different interpretations of the prehistory of Island Southeast Asia (ISEA), with genetic evidence invoked in support of both. The “out-of-Taiwan” model proposes a major Late Holocene expansion of Neolithic Austronesian speakers from Taiwan. An alternative, proposing that Late Glacial/postglacial sea-level rises triggered largely autochthonous dispersals, accounts for some otherwise enigmatic genetic patterns, but fails to explain the Austronesian language dispersal. Combining mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), Y-chromosome and genome-wide data, we performed the most comprehensive analysis of the region to date, obtaining highly consistent results across all three systems and allowing us to reconcile the models. We infer a primarily common ancestry for Taiwan/ISEA populations established before the Neolithic, but also detected clear signals of two minor Late Holocene migrations, probably representing Neolithic input from both Mainland Southeast Asia and South China, via Taiwan. This latter may therefore have mediated the Austronesian language dispersal, implying small-scale migration and language shift rather than large-scale expansion.

Concepts: DNA, Mitochondrion, Mitochondrial DNA, Southeast Asia, Holocene, Historical linguistics, Austronesian languages, Formosan languages