On the disintegration of (proto-)languages

Paulo Murilo Castro de Oliveira 1 , Adriano O. Sousa 2  and Søren Wichmann 3
  • 1 Instituto de Física, Universidade Federal Fluminense & INCT-SC, Brazil
  • 2 Departamento de Física Teórica e Experimental, Universidade Federal de Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil
  • 3 Department of Linguistics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany & Leiden University, The Netherlands


Do languages split into dialects and subsequently into new languages at regular rates? Does such a regular splitting rate also apply to speech communities ancestral to the world's current language families? Do linguistic phylogenies exhibit intermediate levels (“genera”) which are somehow objectively identifiable? These questions are rarely raised, much less answered. In this article we present a simple method that provides insights into all the questions, drawing upon data from a world-wide sample of languages. It will be shown that splitting rates are approximately regular even if the languages studied are proto-languages spoken at very different points in prehistory and different places in the world. Ancestors of the world's linguistic families tend to have similar life-times. An intermediate transitional level corresponding to the point where genera appear can be objectively inferred from differences among descendant languages even without previously having established the structure of the phylogenetic tree.

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IJSL is dedicated to the development of the sociology of language as a truly international and interdisciplinary field in which various approaches - theoretical and empirical - supplement and complement each other, contributing thereby to the growth of language-related knowledge, applications, values and sensitivities. The journal features topically-focused issues with individual contributions on small languages and small language communities.