Geospatial distributions reflect rates of evolution of features of language

Kauhanen, H., Gopal, D., Galla T. & Bermúdez-Otero, R. (2018) Geospatial distributions reflect rates of evolution of features of language. arXiv, 1801.09637.


Different structural features of human language change at different rates and thus exhibit different temporal stabilities. Existing methods of linguistic stability estimation depend upon the prior genealogical classification of the world’s languages into language families; these methods result in unreliable stability estimates for features which are sensitive to horizontal transfer between families and whenever data are aggregated from families of divergent time depths. To overcome these problems, we describe a method of stability estimation without family classifications, based on mathematical modelling and the analysis of contemporary geospatial distributions of linguistic features. Regressing the estimates produced by our model against those of a genealogical method, we report broad agreement but also important differences. In particular, we show that our approach is not liable to some of the false positives and false negatives incurred by the genealogical method. Our results suggest that the historical evolution of a linguistic feature leaves a footprint in its global geospatial distribution, and that rates of evolution can be recovered from these distributions by treating language dynamics as a spatially extended stochastic process.