Scientists at the University of Reading have discovered that languages change and evolve in rapid bursts rather than in a steady pattern.

The research in Science investigates thousands of years of language evolution, and looks at the way in which languages split and evolve. It has long been accepted that the desire for a distinct social identity may cause languages to change quickly, but it has not previously been known whether such rapid bursts of change are a regular feature of the evolution of human language. The findings show that initially, the basic vocabulary of newly formed languages develops and changes quite quickly, and this is then followed by longer periods of slower and gradual change.

Rapid bursts of change at the time of language splitting are important processes in language evolution, and the research has found that these account for between 10 and 33 % of the total divergence amongst the basic vocabularies of the language groups studied. The research used data to construct evolutionary tree diagrams to explore the relationships between languages. The diagrams describe the separate paths of evolution leading from a common ancestral language to a set of distinct languages at the tips of the tree.

Professor Mark Pagel from the University of Reading said “Our research suggests that rapid bursts of change occur in languages, and this reflects a human ability to adjust languages at critical times of cultural evolution, such as during the emergence of new and rival groups.

The emergence of American English took place when the American English Dictionary was introduced by Noah Webster. He insisted that ‘as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as Government’. This illustrates that language is not only used as a means of communication, but it is also important for social functions, including promoting group identity and unity.”

Atkinson, Q. D., Meade, A., Venditti, C., Greenhill, S. J. & Pagel, M. Science 319, 588 (2008).