Thanks for this, Simon! I’m about to go and read your paper. Just a quick comment or two, though: Dixon’s version of punctuated equilibrium is not a model about rates of change, except indirectly. His ‘punctuation’ is a non-linguistic event which triggers tree-like evolution. As such it doesn’t have much to do with Eldredge and Gould punctuated equilibrium. Also, linguists have known for ages (more than a century) that there are periods of bursts of change; chain-shifts like the Great Vowel Shift and bundles of changes like the Slavic Open Syllable Conspiracy (no, I did not make up this name) have long been observed.
[...] last thing, do read Simon’s blog post describing his project and involvement as well as the Nature News coverage on the [...]
Thanks for the comment, Claire!
Yes, I think I was trying a bit hard to link punctuated equilibrium debates to those in linguistics, and sort of shoe-horned Dixon in there as the most prominent example of linguistic PE. I don’t think his formulation is particularly useful – I read it as an odd “two-phase” system where languages are either changing gradually (=diffusing areally), or punctually (=descending vertically). I’d argue that both those processes are happening at once to varying degrees. He was probably just doing that as a rhetorical way of distinguishing between these two processes.
I’d be very interested in looking at his example of Australian/Pama-Nyungan languages and seeing if these are considerably less punctuational as he’d argue.
Another thing – I’m always amused by the parallel evolution between linguistics and evolutionary biology. In many cases, it seems the linguists have beaten the biologists to the punch!
I’d be very interested to hear any other comments you have.
Thurgood’s dissertation (published by Pacific Linguistics somewhere between 1987 and 1989) is probably closest to the biological notion of punctuated equilibrium in linguistics.
There’s not a huge amount of reconstruction work in Australia (yet!) but from what I can see we do find subgroups with lots of changes (Arandic, Paman), and other areas which are very conservative. As far as I remember, Dixon doesn’t draw any conclusions about the rate of change, just the amount of homoplasy (he doesn’t use that term, but that’s what the claim boils down to). In my view, that doesn’t work in Australia either.
Claire means to refer to
Thurston, William R. 1987. Processes of change in the languages of North-Western New Britain. (Pacific Linguistics B-99), who even uses the term’punctuated equilibrium’.
Thanks for pointing out the Thurston reference – I have a vague recollection of skim-reading it a few years back, but I’ll have to browse more closely when I get some time.
This was an enitrely instinctive response to an opportunity (that’s another story), additional attention can also be found at the UBU Web site http://www.ubu.com/sound/nigl.html–thought you might be interested.
[...] The full story is here, and I’ve written about some of the (our) research here before. [...]
Is there any relevance in also looking a cutural proximity, i.e. do isolated languages change in another way than languages close to other different ones. Loan words, new grammar, pidgin structures etc. Or is that irrelevant when looking at change at this level?
By the way: did you mean ‘wasser’ instead of ‘vasser’ for German water?
Hi Jesper, thanks for the comment.
I think it’ll be quite interesting to look at proximity between languages and other potential factors (for example, some of the borrowing literature suggests that borrowing is reduced if the societies don’t get along, or borrowing is increased if the language is more similar). Certainly – our results have only explained around 25% of the variation there, and there’s a lot of other things going on!
& yes, that should be “wasser”! I can see that my 5 years of high-school German have gone to waste!