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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Do languages tend to become more similar over time or do they become more different?

A basic assumption of language change is that if two linguistic groups are isolated from each other, then their languages will become more different over time.  If the groups come into contact again, then they may become more similar to each other, for instance by borrowing parts of each others’ languages.  This is the case in many parts of the world where aspects of language have been borrowed into many different languages.  A recent example is the word ‘internet’ which has been adopted by many languages. However, before global communication was possible, borrowing was restricted to languages in the same geographic area. This might cause languages in the same area to become more similar to each other.  Linguists call these ‘areal effects’, and they are influenced by factors such as migration or a group being more powerful or prestigious. 


Another possibility that would make languages more similar is if there were certain words or linguistic rules were easier to learn or somehow ‘fit’ the human brain better.  This is similar to different biological species sharing similar traits, such as birds, bats and some dinosaurs evolving wings.  In this case, languages that were even on opposite sides of the world might change to become more similar. Researchers have noticed some features in words across languages which seem to make a direct link between a word's sound and its meaning (this is known as sound-symbolism). For instance, words for ‘nose’ tend to involve sounds made with the nose such as [n].  Languages all over the world use a similar word to question what someone else has said – ‘huh?’ or ‘what?’ – possibly because it’s a short, question-like word that’s effective at getting people’s attention.

Telling the difference between these effects and the similarities caused by borrowing is difficult because their effects can be similar.  One of the goals of evolutionary linguistics is to find ways of teasing these effects apart.

This question strikes at the heart of linguistic research, because it involves asking whether there are limits on what languages can be like. Some of the first modern linguistic theories suggested that there were limits on how different languages could be because of biological constraints.  More recently, field linguists have been documenting many languages that show a huge diversity in their sounds, words and rules.  It may be the case that for every way in which languages become more similar, there is another way in which they become more different at the same time.

by Seán Roberts & Gwilym Lockwood

Some links

Can you tell the difference between languages? (link)
Why is it studying linguistic diversity difficult? (link)
Is ‘huh?’ a universal word? (link)

Further Reading

Nettle, D. (1999). Linguistic Diversity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dingemanse, M., Torreira, F., & Enfield, N. J. (in press). Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items. PLoS One. (link)

Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Levinson, S. C., & Gray, R. D. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature, 473, 79-82. (link)

About MPI

This is the MPI

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.

Questions and Answers

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This project was coordinated by:

Katrien Segaert 
Katerina Kucera
Judith Holler

Sean Roberts
Agnieszka Konopka
Gwilym Lockwood
Elma Hilbrink
Joost Rommers
Mark Dingemanse
Connie de Vos