Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages
Dediu, D., & Levinson, S. C.
Abstract profiles of structural stability point to universal tendencies, family-specific factors, and ancient connections between languages. PLoS One, 7
(9), e45198. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0045198.
Language is the best example of a cultural evolutionary system, able to retain a phylogenetic signal over
many thousands of years. The temporal stability (conservatism) of basic vocabulary is relatively well
understood, but the stability of the structural properties of language (phonology, morphology, syntax)
is still unclear. Here we report an extensive Bayesian phylogenetic investigation of the structural stability
of numerous features across many language families and we introduce a novel method for analyzing
the relationships between the “stability profiles” of language families. We found that there is a strong
universal component across language families, suggesting the existence of universal linguistic, cognitive
and genetic constraints. Against this background, however, each language family has a distinct stability
profile, and these profiles cluster by geographic area and likely deep genealogical relationships. These stability
profiles reveal, for example, the ancient historical relationships between the Siberian and American
language families, presumed to be separated by at least 12,000 years. Thus, such higher-level properties
of language seen as an evolutionary system might allow the investigation of ancient connections between
languages and shed light on the peopling of the world.