Brevia

Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts

Science  01 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5863, pp. 588
DOI: 10.1126/science.1149683

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Abstract

Linguists speculate that human languages often evolve in rapid or punctuational bursts, sometimes associated with their emergence from other languages, but this phenomenon has never been demonstrated. We used vocabulary data from three of the world's major language groups—Bantu, Indo-European, and Austronesian—to show that 10 to 33% of the overall vocabulary differences among these languages arose from rapid bursts of change associated with language-splitting events. Our findings identify a general tendency for increased rates of linguistic evolution in fledgling languages, perhaps arising from a linguistic founder effect or a desire to establish a distinct social identity.

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