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Language Change and Diversity

Historical and comparative linguistics and philology; typology and universals; grammatical theory; sociolinguistics; linguistic anthropology; language endangerment

The diversity of the languages and dialects spoken around the world is easy to observe. Since its origins in the 19th-century, one of the principal goals of modern linguistics has been to try to document and understand this diversity from a variety of different perspectives. Since diversity arises from change, the study of diversity and change have always gone together.

river delta
Image by feral arts on Flickr

Historical relationships 

The most time-honoured and proven approach to change and diversity involves documenting and, where written records fail, reconstructing relations among languages. This project has been pursued with great success; over the past two centuries the historical relationships constituting the world’s major language families (Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Kordofanian, etc.) have been largely established, and most of the world’s languages have been shown to belong to one large family or another (with a few “isolates”, most famously Basque).

Syntactic relationships

The method of comparative reconstruction is highly effective in the areas of phonology, morphology and the lexicon. However, it is not clear that it can be applied to syntax owing to the open-ended nature of syntactic forms, and it suffers from “diminishing returns” as one goes further back in time. It may be no accident that few relationships can be reliably reconstructed using traditional methodology beyond a time-depth of more than about five millennia. The traditional research agenda must then be augmented in two ways: by the development of techniques for syntactic reconstruction and by the development of new methodologies permitting establishment of older relationships. Researchers in Cambridge in various departments, Faculties and Schools are actively involved in research on both of these questions, and we anticipate that the Language Sciences Strategic Research Initiative will facilitate this work.

Language typology

Language typology - the study of cross-linguistic patterns not directly attributable to historical relationships - has made enormous strides since the early work of Greenberg in the 1960s.  A great deal is now known about the main structural properties of many of the world’s languages, and the World Atlas of Languages Structures provides an online, open-source database of enormous value with data on over 2,000 languages. With expertise on all the major Indo-European languages, Chinese, Japanese, Semitic, Bantu and many other languages, Cambridge forms a natural home for the study of how languages vary.  Language typology has always additionally been concerned with the limits to variation, i.e. features of language which may be universal. This question has implications far beyond linguistics, in particular psychology and philosophy, since it may tell us something about the general nature of human cognition. Language universals are actively studied from a number of different perspectives by various members of the Language Sciences Research Initiative, and, given the range of language expertise available, there is scope for greater collaboration.

Language and society

Languages do not exist in a vacuum. Every language is embedded in a society and a culture, and to some extent reflects that society and culture. The study of the relations between language and society, sociolinguistics, is a further active and inherently interdisciplinary area of research in Cambridge. Moreover, at present a very large proportion of the world’s languages, perhaps as high as 50%, are threatened with extinction. The Cambridge Endangered Languages and Cultures Group (CELC: “pursues an interdisciplinary approach to the theory, methodology and practice of endangered language and culture documentation,” and in so doing brings together linguists, sociologists, anthropologists and ethnologists from a range of Schools across the University.

The Language Diversity and Change strand of this new Strategic Initiative provides all Cambridge researchers in this domain with a platform in which we can exchange ideas, instigate joint research projects and develop teaching which cuts across the boundaries of individual departments, schools and faculties, thereby promoting an even stronger research community in the future.

Professor Ian Roberts, Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

Professor Geoffrey Khan, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Statistical Acoustic-Phonetic Historical Linguistics

Modelling linguistic sound changes to "bring back to life" languages from the past.

Lecture by Prof. John Aston (Dept of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics) & Prof. John Coleman (Phonetics Laboratory, University of Oxford)


Crowdsourcing big data in English dialectology

Linguistic patterns and trends identified as a result of the New York Times dialect quiz

Dr. Bert Vaux, Dept. of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


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