There is a theory that languages move from one morphological typology (isolating, inflected, agglutinating) to the next in a usual, predictable cycle.

What evidence is proposed to support this theory?

As background, I am also familiar with natural sciences and usually things move to the most stable state (macroscopically. for example, things go down, hydrogen atoms fuse to become helium atoms, etc) and do not naturally go back without external force. I am wondering why this isn't the case for languages and why languages go in cycle instead.

  • There are also many natural processes that are known to move in stable oscillatory cycles, such as predator-prey population dynamics. Whether and how description of such cycles stacks up against "real science" like physics is a topic of discussion in the philosophy of science literature; I think that fixing the appropriate level of description is one of the issues (historical) linguistics is having to contend with as it becomes more scientific.
    – Aaron
    Sep 23, 2011 at 20:51
  • I haven't heard of such a theory, only a proposal in the 19th C by von Humboldt, can you point to any references? I don't believe anyone takes it seriously these days, and while this morphological typology is used as a shorthand for referring to clusters of features, it is usually understood as a gross simplification. It's more common for linguists to talk of two parameters, synthesis and fusionality. Oct 6, 2011 at 10:47
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    @GastonÜmlaut: Ah yes I just tracked it down to von Humboldt before I saw this. It seems it's one of those factoids/memes that people pick up when they have an interest in linguistics without the nitty gritty like what it's called, who it's due to, how old it is, or whether anyone really accepts it )-: But it's just the kind of thing we can put straight once and for all with this Stack Exchange! Oct 6, 2011 at 17:11
  • @GastonÜmlaut My impression was that von der Gabelentz's refinement of the cyclical theory (into a "spiral") was taken as a background assumption in Grammaticalisation Theory; it certainly featured prominently in Hopper & Traugott's textbook. Jul 9, 2018 at 2:01

2 Answers 2


The reason the analogy with the physical sciences breaks down, I think, is that languages are transmitted through learning and, during the course of that, there can be perceptual distortions, production errors, processing mistakes, reanalysis, etc.

None of isolating, inflected, agglutinating are any more stable than the others so there's no natural state for a language to settle on. Instead, language changes put pressure on other parts of the language to change, either through analogy or a need to disambiguate things which have been conflated.

As to the evidence, processes like grammaticalization and periphrasis can been seen in a lot of languages; and those that have a long enough written record bear testimony to going back and forth—perhaps not always in a full cycle but certainly oscillating between alternatives, neither of which is any more stable than the other.

  • can you cite examples of the 'back and forth testimony'?
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 23, 2011 at 18:08
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    from an answer elsewhere: "French inflections coming from Latin periphrastics coming from Latin inflections coming from PIE periphrastics and so on" Sep 23, 2011 at 19:30
  • @JamesTauber: But PIE, Latin and French are all typologically classified as "inflecting languages". This is evidence for change at the level of specific grammatical structures, but not for a "cycle" at the level of generalized whole-language morphological systems Jun 6, 2017 at 19:21

The major piece of evidence is the mere existence of agglutinating and inflecting languages.

If there were only evolutionary processes that make formerly inflecting or agglutinating languages isolating , there would be no inflecting or agglutinating languages (given the time language is around, all languages would have reached the isolating stage and stay there forever. Also, Pidgins and Creoles are typically isolating, so they do not provide a source of inflecting languages).

It is of course theoretically possible that an isolating language becomes directly inflecting without and agglutinating intermediate step, but afaik this transition has not been observed yet.

It is, of course, somewhat unsatisfactory to have only a "non-constructive" argument for the typological cycle, seeing all proposed transitions in action (and not seeing the transitions the other way round) would be more satisfactory.

  • I think the theory in question is that languages move in a "cycle", from A to B to C and then back to A again. You seem to be responding to something entirely different.
    – fdb
    Jun 7, 2017 at 15:34
  • @fdb we have well-documented examples for the movement inflecting -> isolating (most prominently, English), but it is difficult to get at examples for movements away from the isolating type. Nevertheless, such movements must exist, otherwise the other types of languages would not exist. I am aware of the postulated directed cycle, and it is somewhat plausible, but, alas, evidence from data is hard to establish. Jun 7, 2017 at 16:00
  • You are operating tacitly with two unproven hypotheses: (1) that all languages have a common origin, and (2) that languages all develop at the same rate. The latter is definitely not true.
    – fdb
    Jun 7, 2017 at 16:08
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    @fdb: No I don't. I cited Pidgins and Creoles as newly emerging languages (but they are of the isolating type), and I do not assume the same rate of language evolution. But I assume that the time that language exists in humans is large compared to the the time for the transition of inflecting and agglutinating languages to isolatings ones. Jun 7, 2017 at 19:26

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