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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

Plenary: Australian Languages and Theories of Language Change



Claire Bowern


I use findings from recent research in Australian languages to discuss three fundamental areas of historical linguistics: 1) exceptionalism and universalism in language change; 2) the role of phylogenetics and evolutionary models in studying language change, and 3) the role of non-linguistic factors in describing and explaining language change. Australian languages have long been used as testing grounds for various claims of ‘exceptionality’, from the lexicon to phonology and syntax, to claims of social relationships and language change (for an overview, see Bowern 2010). In some ways, the prototypical Australian language community is very different from those for which core principles of historical linguistics were originally established: small, mobile, multilingual populations. Yet, as we have seen again and again over the last 20 years, Australian languages are describable by the same descriptive and diachronic theoretical vocabulary that linguists use for other parts of the world. Indeed, Australian languages are an excellent natural laboratory for studying language change, because of the large number of languages, the relative uniformity in populations, and the wide differences in language contact phenomena.

In the second part of the talk, I turn to phylogenetics (and other computational or quantitative approaches to historical linguistics). Recent work has discussed both the appropriateness of algorithmic approaches to historical problems, and specifically biological (or evolutionary) approaches to linguistic data. I use data from Australian languages to make the case that an evolutionary approach to language change has advantages for how we model language more generally; in short, that it leads to a more consistent approach to our data and a more tenable set of assumptions about how languages change. I discuss criticisms of phylogenetic methods and show how some problems can be overcome.

I conclude the talk with some remarks on the role of non-linguistic factors in language change. An evolutionary approach to language lets us see language as something that speakers do: language changes not of its own accord, but (most broadly) as a result of how speakers interact with one another. Evolutionary approaches make clear the differences between features of language that are the properties of individuals, and language as a system, that changes as features fluctuate across populations.

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