(I don't know whether this is a genuine "linguistics" problem as of how "linguistics" is defined, but it has bothered my curiosity for so long I have to ask it somewhere.)

When we scientifically study something, we almost always try to come up with a hypothesis which states what kind of factors made this thing the way it is today. An example: The fact that the majority of creatures breathe oxygen, and have water as the basic medium for metabolism, is explained by the factors that for billions of years on earth, oxygen and water have been the dominant elements in the environment. On the contrary, some creatures live without oxygen, because where they live another resource is dominant instead of oxygen. According to the same logic, we could reasonably(though not 100% surely) infer that on a planet where CO is the dominant gas, the creatures, if already formed, will very probably be using CO as an important part for metabolism. By this way, we are constructing a reproducible prediction of how things are formed, based on some observable factors. We are providing an explanation “why” things are the way they are.

Another more relevant example: A popular hypothesis states that Northern European people generally have pale skin, because pale skin absorbs Vitamin D better than dark skin. Another hypothesis states that an agricultural & centralized society formed in China & Egypt because of the closed & fertile nature of their land, while the island/sea conditions of ancient Greece contributed to its commercialism & openness. These are not as easy to attest to as the above hypothesis of why creatures breathe oxygen. But they're still reasonable hypotheses.

I don’t know whether we can apply the same logic to the formation of languages. Languages around the world are very distinct. However I do not believe they just became the way they are today totally out of random. That is to say, for example, while some languages are synthetic, some others are analytic. While some are tonal, some others are not. These are classifications comparable to the dark/pale skin colors, differences in torso lengths etc among different races. As I have seen, linguistics has largely been about studying what are the differences between these different languages, but I haven’t been able to find any study about why these differences were formed in the first place, or, put it another way, what (practical) factores could have contributed to the different characteristics of different languages. which to me appears to be a fascinating topic.

My questions are:

Does any relevant concentrated study exist on this topic?(I don’t believe such study doesn’t exist at all...)

If so, what do they propose? Does any of you have a reasonable hypothesis about it?

If not, why? Is it because of the sheer difficulty in realizing such a study, because of our limitation on historical knowledge as well as tools and methods available to conducting such a study?

Or is it that I am just talking nonsense and the formation of languages is a totally distinct process, different in nature, that cannot be compared to the examples I proposed? Or is it really just a very random process which cannot be analyzed and attributed to factors as such?(i.e. even given the same environmental/societal conditions, totally different languages characteristics would have been formed).


2 Answers 2


It is a complex issue but by no means impossible to study, and there is indeed now an increasing body of literature. I think a distinction has to be made between two questions (and I think your question touches on both): (1) why/how did the human language faculty (LF) evolve in the first place? and, once that faculty was in place, (2) why/how do LF and its environment interact so that we end up with radically different languages? For the first question I would recommend James R. (Jim) Hurford's books for a starting point. For the second, Ian Roberts' Diachronic Syntax is an introductory monograph. Partha Niyogi's The Computational Nature of Language Learning and Evolution is a good place to launch into more mathematical approaches. Original research is spread over a variety of journals ranging from traditional linguistics forums such as Language to journals in mathematical biology and statistical physics.

Whether and in what sense these processes can be considered random is a tricky issue. The linguistic sign seems to be arbitrary in the following sense: if I were to create a language ex nihilo, there would be no reason to pick this or that string of phonemes or syntactic structure to represent this or that concept. However, if I were to create a "new" language in the presence of an existing language community so that mutual comprehensibility is retained (at least up to a good degree), there would be such reasons. So there is a basic tension between language acquisition and language change (or coherence and innovation). (I think it is important to note that "the environment" includes the linguistic environment, so that many of the determinants of linguistic diversity - if such determinants there be - may be linguistic rather than something else. The linguistic composition of the existing population may "select" for some grammatical changes rather than other possible ones, much like in evolutionary game theory the fitness of a strategy is dependent on the overall composition of the population.)


How they came to be spoken we don't know, but the origins of signed languages, out of gestural communication, has been well documented. Check out the work of Susan Goldin-Meadow and others. Her "Resilience of Language" is a good place to start. For a less technical approach read "A man without words" by Susan Schaller

  • Thank you for your answer but unfortunately this is not really related to what I'm looking for. A theory which explains how characteristics of spoken languages are formed is a truly wonderful yet natural thing to research about, and I'd be amazed if there's no such effort at all.
    – xji
    May 25, 2014 at 6:06

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