Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Study shows ancient relations between language families

Date:
September 20, 2012
Source:
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Summary:
How do language families evolve over many thousands of years? How stable over time are structural features of languages? Researchers introduced a new method using Bayesian phylogenetic approaches to analyse the evolution of structural features in more than 50 language families.

Network representation showing how language families cluster based on their stability profiles.
Credit: Dan Dediu/MPI for Psycholinguistics

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 of 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.

Related Articles


Their paper 'Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages' will be published online on Sept. 20 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 -- phonology, morphology and syntax. In their PLoS ONE paper, Dan Dediu (MPI's Language and Genetics Department) and Stephen Levinson (director of MPI's Language and Cognition Department) asked how stable over time the structural features of languages are -- aspects like word order, 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 ancient language 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 language families 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.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Dan Dediu, Stephen C. Levinson. Abstract Profiles of Structural Stability Point to Universal Tendencies, Family-Specific Factors, and Ancient Connections between Languages. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (9): e45198 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045198

Cite This Page:

Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. "Study shows ancient relations between language families." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 September 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120920135321.htm>.
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (2012, September 20). Study shows ancient relations between language families. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120920135321.htm
Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. "Study shows ancient relations between language families." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120920135321.htm (accessed November 1, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Alzheimer’s Hope

Alzheimer’s Hope

Ivanhoe (Oct. 31, 2014) A new drug, BCI-838 offers new hope to halt and possibly reverse the damage of Alzheimer’s disease. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Studying Effects of Music on Dementia Patients

Studying Effects of Music on Dementia Patients

AP (Oct. 30, 2014) The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is studying the popular Music and Memory program to see if music, which helps improve the mood of Alzheimer's patients, can also reduce the use of prescription drugs for those suffering from dementia. (Oct. 30) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Techy Tots Are Forefront of London's Baby Show

Techy Tots Are Forefront of London's Baby Show

AP (Oct. 28, 2014) Moms and Dads get a more hands-on approach to parenting with tech-centric products for raising their little ones. (Oct. 28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Cocoa Could Be As Good For Memory As It Is For A Sweet Tooth

Cocoa Could Be As Good For Memory As It Is For A Sweet Tooth

Newsy (Oct. 27, 2014) Researchers have come up with another reason why dark chocolate is good for your health. A substance in the treat can reportedly help with memory. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins