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Languages change over time. I am wondering if there are certain features that are consistently more stable (i.e. changing more slowly) than others, and if yes, what are some examples?

There are many different features of languages that change, such as vocabulary used for certain categories, phonological features, grammatical features, etc. Are there some of these which appear to be resistant to change, and tend to be inherited from the language's ancestor? Are there some which are more commonly borrowed from (or shared among) neighbouring languages? Are there some which tend to evolve rapidly even without external influence?

In comparative linguistics, does a commonality in some types of features carry more weight as evidence of shared ancestry then others? If yes, which features are considered the most stable/unstable?

Potential examples: Vocabulary: Do the names of numbers change faster or slower than other vocabulary categories? Phonology: Do vowels tend to mutate into unrecognizable forms more rapidly than consonants?


Both direct answers and recommendations for further reading are welcome. Please write your answers for laymen, if possible. I assume this question must have been studied extensively already, but having no background in linguistics, I was unable to find much. I probably do not know the correct keywords to search for.

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    This is a good question, but it's very broad. There are definite answers for the specific answers you mention (yes, certain vocabulary items are more likely to remain fixed while others can be replaced or borrowed; yes, vowels tend to change more rapidly than consonants) but it sounds like you're looking for a broader answer than that.
    – Draconis
    Aug 10 at 16:33
  • @Draconis Since I have no background in linguistics, it's inevitable that I'd make incorrect assumptions. Likely, this is what happened here. My assumption was that in order to use the comparative method, it's important to be aware of which features are generally stable and which aren't. I assumed that this must have already been studied, and that an answer could give a summary of what is known about the topic, and point to further references. But perhaps I'm wrong, and there isn't even a set of features which are consistently stable across many languages.
    – Szabolcs
    Aug 10 at 17:30
  • @Draconis Or maybe there are consistently stable features, but this is not usually studied as a single topic, instead it's just touched upon in very different contexts, as the need comes up. I would appreciate some suggestions on how to transform the question into something that's focused enough to be suitable for this site, yet can still teach me something about this topic.
    – Szabolcs
    Aug 10 at 17:33
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    Something that tends to be very stable is basic phonotactics, that is, which syllable types are allowed in a language. For example, /klep/ (unvoiced plosive + liquid + short vowel + unvoiced plosive) has been a possible syllable in English as far back as we know of, all the way back to Proto-Indo-European some five millennia ago (give or take a Tuesday); but /lkep/ never has. Even phonotactics change in smaller ways (e.g., vowel reductions can mean that at a certain stage, only reduced vowels can appear in unstressed syllables), but they tend to change less than other aspects. Aug 10 at 18:09
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: In the Indogermanic language family there are at least two big changes to basic phontactics: Modern Persian has got rid of consonant clusters, and Slavic languages restructured their syllables at scale, a phenomenon tentatively named "Open syllable conspiracy" or "Law of open syllables" Aug 11 at 15:57
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For vocabulary, the Swadesh list is a frequently used tool. There was extensive research on the stability of the different items on the Swadesh list, and a reduced list of 35 particularly stable words was published by Yakhontov. There is also a list of 100 items ordered by stability. For more details, see the quoted Wikipedia article.

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    So the most stable word in the list is ... louse?! On second thought, it certainly must have a been a constant of the human existence throughout most of history :D
    – Szabolcs
    Aug 11 at 17:00
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There can be no general answer insofar as feature systems are not hierarchical, whereas universal phenomena are not featural but structural.

A aingle feature can therefore not be more or less stable, because its stability is relative to the system as a whole. Its entirely useless to consider [+nasal] as a phonetic feature in isolation. Phonology in its entirety is not necessarily the basis of language, see signing, or logical reasoning and communication by cogent agency.

Language universals are still under active research and there seems to be no grant framework in which to phrase a question such as yours to any degree of precision.

Calling almost anything a feature creates both disciplinary and interdisciplinary concerns.

[Misused Terms in Linguistics, Evelina Leivada 2020, cf. pg.4, $ 3. Features]

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