July 22, 2006

Limits on possible language changes

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
The MPI-EVA is multidisciplinary facility, whose aim is to investigate human biological and cultural evolution...The Department of Linguistics investigates the diversity of human language and the historical processes underlying this diversity
We are interested in finding out what properties are common to all human languages ("language universals") and the ways in which languages can differ from each other ("linguistic typology"). Beyond this, we aim to answer the question why language universals and cross-linguistic variation are the way they are. To this end, we study various phenomena across a wide range of languages. Our work makes reference to formal properties of language, to the cognitive bases of language, and to aspects of language in use.
As part of our work on the cross-linguistic study of various phenomena, we also work on the descriptive grammars of various little studied, and often endangered, languages. This work includes extensive periods of time spent with speakers of these languages in the areas where the languages are spoken.
We are interested in the ways in which linguistic evidence can be used, often together with evidence from other fields, to provide solutions to problems of human prehistory. As part of this investigation, we also study comparable contemporary situations to provide a basis for more detailed modelling of earlier times. Particular problems on which we are currently engaged include:
  • The "family tree" of the world's languages, i.e. the extent to which it can be shown that particular languages (a "language family") descend from a single ancestor, and the principles that underlie the establishment of language families. We are interested in both similarities and differences in relation to the biological genetic tree of humanity.
  • The role of language contact in giving rise to similarities between languages that cut across family tree boundaries; this includes in particular work on perhaps the most extreme instances of language contact, namely creole and pidgin languages. Universals of language change: Not all logically possible kinds of diachronic change are actually attested, and certain kinds of change recur in language after language. We are interested in discovering limits on possible language changes, in particular in unidirectional changes such as grammaticalization.

The Leipzig School of Human Origins: An International Max Planck Research School - by the University of Leipzig and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology...offers a unique graduate program that combines different disciplines to study the evolutionary history of humans and the great apes.

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