DSNA-20 & SHEL-9

5-7 June 2015, UBC Vancouver


Language change as cultural evolution: from theory to practice

Nikolaus Ritt

Vienna University

During recent decades the view gained ground that language change can be understood as an evolutionary process that follows Darwinian principles, even though it unfolds in the cultural rather than the biological domain (see e.g. Croft 2000; Ritt 2004; Kirby 2012; McMahon & McMahon 2012). This talk will briefly sketch the theoretical rationale of the approach, but will focus more strongly on some concrete problems in the history of English which can be addressed productively with methods developed for the study of biological and/or cultural evolution.

One case study will report on an experiment designed to test whether speech accommodation may have been causally involved in the grammatical obligatorification of the English determiners the ( < OE se DEM) and a(n) (< OE ān NUM) (Smith et al. 2013). Two other studies will present a new method of exploiting corpus data for simulating virtual language histories and comparing them to the ones that have actually come about. It will be shown how this method can shed new light on phonology-morphology interaction in the domain of morphotactics (Dressler & Dziubalska-Kołaczyk 2006, Dressler, Dziubalska-Kołaczyk & Pestal 2011), and help to explain, for example, the allomorphy involved in regular plural formation (as in dog+[z] vs. cat+[s] vs. hors+[ɪz]) (Prömer, forthc. 2015), or the emergence of finally devoiced past tense forms such as spilt (< spilled), or burnt (< brenned).

Generally, it will be shown that evolutionary thinking can enrich historical language studies not only by suggesting fruitful metaphors but by motivating the use of new tools for addressing problems that are difficult to solve by established philological and linguistic methods.


Croft, William. 2000. Explaining language change: An evolutionary approach (Longman linguistics library). Harlow, England, New York: Longman.

Dressler, Wolfgang U. & Dziubalska-Kołaczyk, Katarzyna. 2006. Proposing Morphonotactics. Wiener Linguistische Gazette 73, 69–87.

Dressler, Wolfgang U., Katarzyna Dziubalska-Kołaczyk & Pestal, Lina. 2010. Change and variation in morphonotactics. Folia Linguistica Historica 31, 51–68.

Kirby, Simon. 2012. Language is an Adaptive System: the role of cultural evolution in the origins of structure. In Maggie Tallerman & Kathleen R. Gibson (eds.), The Oxford handbook of language evolution (Oxford handbooks in linguistics), 589–605. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

McMahon, April M. S. & Robert McMahon. 2012. Evolutionary linguistics (Cambridge textbooks in linguistics). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prömer, Christina, forthc. 2015. Final fricative voicing and the emergence of the English plural allomorphy. Master Thesis. University of Vienna.

Ritt, Nikolaus. 2004. Selfish sounds and linguistic evolution: A Darwinian approach to language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ritt, Nikolaus & Christina Prömer, in prep.. Middle English coda phonotactics, schwa loss and past tense formation.

Smith, Kenny, Olga Fehér & Nikolaus Ritt. 2013. Eliminating unpredictable linguistic variation through interaction. In P. Bello, M. Guarini, M. McShane & B. Scassellati (eds.), Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Mapping the OED: The changing record of the English Language

Charlotte Brewer

Oxford University

In 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary will be fifteen years into its first ever revision and coming up to the halfway mark in its rewriting of every single entry in the original work. Now is a good moment to take stock of the changes being made to its record of the English language. This talk surveys some of the transformations underway in the new dictionary - e.g. in its use of quotation sources, its representation of different periods in the history of the language, its introduction of significant new scholarship on etymology, and not least its use of new technology - and discusses the revolutions taking place in how we use this great work and how it is made. It also considers the role of the OED in relation to English language lexicography more widely.

Sociopragmatics in Middle English manuscripts

Colette Moore

University of Washington

Dialect studies have long provided tools for understanding variation in Middle English manuscripts -- helping us to analyze the relationship between place, speakers, and texts. In recent years, though, the fields of sociolinguistics and pragmatics have begun to introduce new kinds of methodologies for making sense of the relationships between speakers; models like the "community of practice" have risen to complement models of geographic variation. These kinds of methodologies have not yet been integrated into conceptions of variation in Middle English manuscripts, and they can assist us in thinking about the roles of scribes, the place of writing, and the development of 'incipient standards' in English.

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