I originally asked this question on philosophy.stackexchange, but the consensus was that this was better asked here

Deleuze & Guattari introduce the idea of the rhizome in their text A thousand Plateaus as a metaphor closer to the reality than aboroscent (tree-like) descriptions can.

The question then becomes how does one theorise rhizomatically? Is the evolution of language a good example to theorise with - after all it is traditionally described by a tree? Can one, for example, suggest the existence of a tap-root was actually forced onto linguists by their chosen mode of description - a tree - whereas a rhizomatic description does away with a point-like origin.

We also have a picture of say the Indo-European language family starting of at some distant tap-root and slowly diversifying and splitting into many languages, with each branch then developing in perpetual isolation. In this picture, one cannot visualise creolisation where two languages at one time far apart is put into sudden contact and either one perishes, or a new hybrid (creole) develops. Or two languages that were in close contact and actually mutually intelligible, by some force are closed off from each other, and so developing independently eventually become mutually unintelligible.

Can one say then that the Rhizome is arguably closer ontologically to the reality of language than the 'traditional linguistic' image - the tree?

Has this formulation been used in the philosophy of language/evolutionary linguistics at all? If it has, by whom - and what has been the reception?

2 Answers 2


I would say, if you try to depict the development of a single language through time and take a single starting point, the tree is the better choice. Trying to visualize the state of a language or several languages in its relations to many or all others a three dimensional network or rhizome, if you will, would be the better, if not only choice, because a dichotomic depiction cannot suffice, when numerous interdependent relations of varying strength are involved.

Thus I think your questions is rather one of the means of visualization to a specific end.

But a related question would be, if language as such has only one origin, which is quite improbable, or a large number of origins, which again suggests a rhizomatic structure.

This is not so much an answer, but rather a further contribution for discussion.

  • what do you mean by a 'dichomatic depiction'? Jul 4, 2013 at 18:17
  • Not "dichomatic", but "dichotomic" from dichotomy, from Gk 'cut into two parts'. Copy and paste is a good option for questions about words.
    – jlawler
    Jul 4, 2013 at 18:22
  • I hope "dichotomic" is correct in English, as well. I'm German. Dichotomic means splitting things in exactly two: One parental element bears two child elements which themselves bear two child elements each and so on, thus building the tree structure. Binary, if you will.
    – bouscher
    Jul 4, 2013 at 18:41

Divergence of language has most commonly been represented as a tree model, but there is a counterpart in the form of the wave model. When the Neogrammarians in the late 19th century posited that sound change is regular and exceptionless, dialectologists argued against this and the family tree model:

The alternative to the family tree model which was put forward was the “wave theory,” [...] The “wave theory” was intended to deal with changes due to contact among languages and dialects, where changes were said to emanate from a center as waves on a pond do when a stone is thrown into it, and waves from one center of dispersion (where the stone started the waves) can cross or intersect outward moving waves coming from other dispersion centers (started by other stones thrown into the water in other locations). Changes due to language contact (borrowing) were seen as analogous to successive waves crossing one another in different patterns. (Campbell 2000: 92-93)

There seem to be some similarities between the wave model and the rhizome concept, but I'm not sure to what extent these hold. For example (comparing with the wikipedia page on rhizome), chronology is relevant in the wave model, and the 'disturbances' do leave traces. Note that in the wave model, there is still a proto-language from which the dialects developed - a single point of origin. There are however multiple sources that contributed linguistic features/innovations to a particular dialect.

Most importantly, it is understood these days that it is not a question of either the tree model or the wave model that is most representative, but that both are needed to explain language divergence. For example:

Linguists have traditionally represented patterns of divergence within a language family in terms of either a ‘splits’ model, corresponding to a branching family tree structure, or the wave model, resulting in a (dialect) continuum. Recent phylogenetic analyses, however, have tended to assume the former as a viable idealization also for the latter. But the contrast matters, for it typically reflects different processes in the real world: speaker populations either separated by migrations, or expanding over continuous territory. Since history often leaves a complex of both patterns within the same language family, ideally we need a single model to capture both, and tease apart the respective contributions of each. (Heggarty, Maguire & McMahon 2010)

To conclude: I'm not really sure what a rhizomatic model of language divergence would entail. But since the tree and the wave model are both needed to explain different processes, I don't think the rhizome alone could better represent language change. (And, to my knowledge the term rhizome is not used in relation to language change).

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