The Evolution of Linguistic Diversity

Coordination: Amina Mettouchi (EPHE – PSL)

There is increasing recognition that the incredible diversity of the world’s 7,000 languages should not be regarded as superficial variations on a fictitious or empirically vague ‘universal grammar’. Rather, it should be looked straight in the face: the  deep variability across the world’s languages mirrors the variability of species found in the biological realm. Just as it was Darwin’s search for evolutionary processes able to encounter for nature’s incredible variety which laid the foundations for modern biology, so linguistics will only become a mature science when we develop explanatory accounts of how the full range of linguistic diversity has evolved. Expressed another way, all sciences seek general laws, including linguistics. But where for generative approaches the general laws were taken to be those generating different surface structures from a generalised set of deep structures, in coevolutionary approaches the general laws pertain to the processes that engender language structures, not the structures themselves. This fundamental shift, which moves diversity from noise to signal in the study of the world’s languages (Evans & Levinson 2009, Evans 2013), is the theme of this course.

In these four lectures we examine how linguistic diversity arises. We take a coevolutionary approach that goes beyond interplays between language-internal factors and brings in a broad range of selectors – cultural, demographic, population-genetic, climatic, economic, system-internal – that nudge the evolution of linguistic systems to different points in the ‘design space’ over hundreds of iterated generations of language change. Drawing on the extraordinary facts of linguistic diversity from around the world, we will develop a general account of how such diverse linguistic systems can arise from the crucible of their particular cultural and environmental conditions. The broader goal is to establish a long-term dialogue between linguists and philologists interested in the particularities of the languages they study in particular cultural and historical contexts, and a general theory of how the world’s exuberant linguistic diversity has come into existence, just as in biology the extraordinary variety of life-forms has driven the development of a sophisticated and multi-level theory of evolution.

1. Linguistic diversity as a scientific resource.

In this lecture we set the scene by examining how fundamental linguistic diversity is at every level, from phonology through morphosyntax to semantics, in addition to surveying the issues of how to establish diversity at various levels (languages; families; typological profiles) ; of establishing comparability; and of using typology to explore the ‘design space’.

2. Evolution and coevolution : fundamental concepts

Accounting for diversity in evolutionary biology and linguistics. Levels (from gene to population). Darwin’s bridge: from microevolution to macroevolution. Fitness landscapes and convergent vs divergent solutions (reciprocals case study). Coevolution and its levels. Language as an object of the third kind.

3. Selection and the sculpting of linguistic diversity.

Types of selector; trade offs; system coherence.  Processing and learning bottlenecks, and how small biases at those levels can be amplified by repeated iterations. External selectors: population genetics, epidemiological, geographical/climatic, demographic, cultural.

4. Multilingualism, variability, and the evolution of diversity.

Multilingual contact and the pooling of innovations. The case for primal multilingualism. Convergence vs divergence in language contact. Social signalling and the meme pool. Extreme language contact and its consequences: pidgins, creoles and mixed languages. Catching diversification in the act. General conclusions and outstanding questions: what the language sciences need to do next to understand linguistic diversification.

Cite this blog post
ILARA (2022, March 30). The Evolution of Linguistic Diversity. ILARA, the Institute for Linguistic Heritage and Diversity. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

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