Centre for Philosophy of Science Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab

William Croft

Evolutionary Models meet Sociohistorical Linguistics

Course description

The application of evolutionary models to language change in the field of linguistics is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historical linguistics and sociolinguistics are well-developed research areas in linguistics, but most of the theories and results are not cast in evolutionary terms, except for occasional analogies. Yet linguistics has perhaps the most concrete and substantial data for testing evolutionary models of cultural transmission. Much theorizing by nonlinguists about cultural evolution makes proposals about language change, but without reference to the detailed results of linguistic research. I will discuss competing evolutionary models for cultural transmission, as applied to language change; examine the mechanisms of variation and selection in language change, including some mathematical models of those mechanisms; and discuss issues of comparative linguistics (phylogeny) and language contact (reticulation) from an evolutionary perspective.


Day-by-Day Program


Lecture 1: Evolutionary Theories in Biology, Cultural Change, and Language Change

  1. Croft, William. In preparation. Explaining language change: an evolutionary approach, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[draft of chapter 2] 
  2. Griffiths, Paul E. & Russell D. Gray. 2001. Darwinism and developmental systems. Cycles of contingency: developmental systems and evolution, ed. Susan Oyama, Paul E. Griffiths and Russell D. Gray, 195-218. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  3. Mesoudi, Alex, Andrew Whiten and Kevin N. Laland. 2004. Is human cultural evolution Darwinian? Evidence reviewed from the perspective of The Origin of Species. Evolution 58.1-11.
  4. Pagel, Mark. 2009. Human language as a culturally transmitted replicator. Nature Reviews Genetics 10.405-15.


Lecture 2: Mechanisms and Models of Variation in Language Change

  1. Croft, William. 2010. The origins of grammaticalization in the verbalization of experience. Linguistics 48.1-48.
  2. Ohala, John J. 2003. Phonetics and historical phonology. Handbook of Historical Linguistics, ed. Brian Joseph & Richard Janda. 669-86. Oxford: Blackwell.
  3. Pierrehumbert, Janet. 2003. Phonetic diversity, statistical learning, and acquisition of phonology. Language and Speech 46.115-54.


Lecture 3: Mechanisms and Models of Selection in Language Change

  1. Baxter, Gareth J. Richard A. Blythe, William Croft and Alan J. McKane. 2006. Utterance selection model of language change. Physical Review E 73.046118.
  2. Baxter, Gareth J. Richard A. Blythe, William Croft and Alan J. McKane. 2009. Modeling language change: an evaluation of Trudgill’s theory of the emergence of New Zealand English. Language Variation and Change 21.157-96.
  3. Blythe, Richard A. and William Croft. 2012. S-curves and the mechanisms of propagation in language change. Language 88.269-304.
  4. Nettle, Daniel. 1999. Using Social Impact Theory to simulate language change. Lingua 108.95-117.


Lecture 4: Some Issues in Typology and Comparative Historical Linguistics

  1. Croft, William. 2008. Evolutionary linguistics. Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 37, ed. William H. Durham, Donald Brenneis and Peter T. Ellison, 219-34. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.
  2. Pagel, Mark. 2009. Human language as a culturally transmitted replicator. Nature Reviews Genetics 10.405-15.


Lecture 5: Contact Languages: Structural and Social Factors in their Evolution

  1. Croft, William. 2000. Explaining language change: an evolutionary approach. Harlow, Essex: Longman. [ch. 8, §§8.1-8.3]
  2. Croft, William. 2003. Mixed languages and acts of identity: an evolutionary approach. The mixed language debate, ed. Yaron Matras & Peter Bakker, 41-72. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  3. Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2007. Population movements and contact in language evolution. Journal of Language Contact 1.63-91. (Revised version published as chapter 3 of Language evolution: contact, competition and change [London: Continuum, 2008].)