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Linguistic Change and Biological Evolution

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Abstract

Early conceptualizations of evolution, e.g. by Charles Darwin, saw similarities in the evolution of languages and of biological species. This similarity has been disputed at times, but in recent decades linguists have again started looking at how biology studies evolution.

Some linguistic processes appear similar to processes in biological evolution. In particular, the variation in linguistic and biological phenomena can be coded in similar ways, and to some extent the same research tools can be applied to both. This is not a new approach—phylogenetic trees of language families have been around for a century and a half, as have isogloss-based studies of dialectal variation—but in the past, systematic co-operation between the two fields has been relatively rare.

Discussion on the parallels between linguistic change and biological evolution has suffered from simplifications, as for most of the past century historical linguists have lacked a state-of-the-art understanding of evolutionary biology and vice versa. It is, however, possible to go beyond simple analogies between linguistic and biological evolution. One possible path is to continue toward meta-theories that incorporate biological and cultural evolution into a single theoretical framework. Here, one attempts to see fundamental similarities at a structural level instead of individual, simplified analogies in individual processes.

On the other hand, it is not strictly necessary to have a full-fledged epistemological understanding of the connections between biological and linguistic evolution, especially as few people have the required understanding of both fields. A large fraction of present computational methods are based simply in finding spatio-temporal patterns in linguistic variation and, in some cases, similarities in the behavior of linguistic and genetic or cultural variation and change. To use these tools, one needs to understand both the tool and the field it is applied to, regardless of whether a more fundamental connection exists between biological and linguistic change.

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Leino, U., Syrjänen, K., Vesakoski, O. (2020). Linguistic Change and Biological Evolution. In: Nefdt, R.M., Klippi, C., Karstens, B. (eds) The Philosophy and Science of Language. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-55438-5_7

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