Language Diversity as a Resource for Understanding Cultural Evolution

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    The study of linguistic diversity, and the factors driving change between language states, in different sociocultural contexts, arguably provides the best arena of human culture for the application of evolutionary approaches, as Darwin realized. After a long period in which this potential has been neglected, the scene is now set for a new reconnection of evolutionary approaches to the astonishingly diverse range of languages around the world, many on the verge of extinction without trace. This chapter outlines the various ways coevolutionary models can be applied to language change, and surveys the many ways diversity manifests itself both in language structure and in the organization of diversity beyond the language unit. Problems of establishing comparability and characterizing the full dimensions of the design space are discussed, including the distribution of characters across it, the correlations between them, and the challenge of establishing diachronic typologies (i.e., establishing the likelihood of different types of transition, including the insights that could be reached through properly focused studies of micro-variation). It concludes by surveying the main types of selection that mold the emergence of linguistic diversity—psychological/ physiological, system/semiotic, and genetic/ epidemiological—and spells out seven major challenges that confront further studies of linguistic diversity within an evolutionary framework. Published in the Strungmann Forum Reports Series.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationCultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language, and Religion
    Editors Peter J Richerson & Morten H Christiansen
    Place of PublicationCambridge, MA and London
    PublisherMIT Press
    ISBN (Print)9780262019750
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


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