Santa Fe Institute

The origins, evolution, and diversity of human languages

The world's major language families (mouse over for more)

The framework of evolution organizes the observed diversity among living organisms, and provides a glimpse at their common ancestors from billions of years ago. Within our own species, the diversity of cultures and of the languages they engender may have evolved by similar evolutionary processes. Is there then a way to explore linguistic diversity at a concrete, quantitative level? Are there ways to recover its origins that go all, or at least much, of the way back to the origin of language itself?

At SFI, we believe that evolutionary processes do give rise to cultural diversity, and we seek to uncover and describe these processes through logical and mathematical analysis of human language. The goal of our project is to go beyond the merely abstract similarity between biological evolution and cultural evolution to develop a quantitative framework for understanding the relatedness of human languages that incorporates the vast experience accumulated over two hundred years of research.

One of the primary tasks of historical linguistics is to work out the detailed historical classification of languages, organizing them into a genealogical tree similar to those of biological species, and understand the regularities that underlie language change. However, even though linguists have successfully classified many languages into various taxa, higher (deeper) levels of classification remain problematic, and a great degree of cooperation between specialists is necessary in order to uncover language relationships and recover their prehistory beyond the threshold of a few thousand years. SFI’s unparalleled atmosphere of transdisciplinary collaboration puts us in an excellent position to coordinate this activity.

It is our hope that by approaching human language from a rigorous probabilistic perspective, we can reach a new and concrete understanding of the cultural origins of our species. To achieve that purpose, SFI supports the ongoing Evolution of Human Languages program and its associated data banks in historical linguistics—the largest of its kind—as well as research to harness the power of modern computers to process such data and draw important historical conclusions. More