Skip to main content

Scientists at the University of Reading discover that Languages Evolve in Rapid Bursts – University of Reading

Show access keys

Scientists at the University of Reading discover that Languages Evolve in Rapid Bursts

Release Date 01 February 2008

Scientists at the University of Reading have discovered that languages change and evolve in rapid bursts rather than in a steady pattern.

The research, published this week in the journal Science, investigates thousands of years of language evolution, and looks at the way in which languages split and evolve. It has long been accepted that the desire for a distinct social identity may cause languages to change quickly, but it has not previously been known whether such rapid bursts of change are a regular feature of the evolution of human language.

The findings show that initially, the basic vocabulary of newly formed languages develops and changes quite quickly, and this is then followed by longer periods of slower and gradual change.

Rapid bursts of change at the time of language splitting are important processes in language evolution, and the research has found that these account for between 10 and 33 % of the total divergence amongst the basic vocabularies of the language groups studied.

The research used data to construct evolutionary tree diagrams to explore the relationships between languages. The diagrams describe the separate paths of evolution leading from a common ancestral language to a set of distinct languages at the tips of the tree.

Professor Mark Pagel from the University of Reading said "Our research suggests that rapid bursts of change occur in languages, and this reflects a human ability to adjust languages at critical times of cultural evolution, such as during the emergence of new and rival groups.

The emergence of American English took place when the American English Dictionary was introduced by Noah Webster. He insisted that 'as an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as Government'. This illustrates that language is not only used as a means of communication, but it is also important for social functions, including promoting group identity and unity."


For all media enquiries please contact Dr Lucy Chappell on 0118 378 7391

We use Javascript to improve your experience on, but it looks like yours is turned off. Everything will still work, but it is even more beautiful with Javascript in action. Find out more about why and how to turn it back on here.
We also use cookies to improve your time on the site, for more information please see our cookie policy.