February 22, 2024

Linguistic Equilibrium Vs. Punctuation: How Do Languages Evolve?

Author: owen.pham
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By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

According to the theory of linguistic equilibrium, languages slowly evolve through contact with other languages and borrowing features from them. The features can even be grammatical. Many languages prove the theory right when they are traced back to their origins, which look drastically different. Yet, another theory refuses to accept it, and it has logical reasons.

Flat tiny linguistic sounds person concept.
Linguistic equilibrium is based on the idea that languages slowly affected each other and changed until their new forms looked different from the old one and the ancestor language. (Image: VectorMine/Shutterstock)

Linguistic equilibrium explains linguistic evolution in languages. Geographical neighbors have always had a leading role in language evolution. To understand it better, one must first know language bundles and how they are formed.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Language Bundles

A Sprachbund, or a language bundle, is a group of languages that share similar traits and are usually spoken in the same region, but come from diverse roots. For example, European languages come from different ancestors and have some areal traits that the ancestor-languages did not have. The articles and the perfect tense are such examples.

The photo shows the word GRAMMAR written on card index paper.
When a language bundle is formed, every aspect of the languages can be affected by traits from the other languages, even the structures. (Image: Sinart Creative/Shutterstock)

There are significant similarities in Southeast Asian languages. Learning either Chinese or Vietnamese, Thai, or Khmer will make learning the other languages much easier as they seem to share bases. However, they come from thoroughly different families, and the immigrations and invasions in the area have helped languages to borrow traits from other languages spoken in the region.

Basque is another example of a language that comes from totally different roots. It is neither Indo-European, like English and German, nor Uralic, like Hungarian and Finnish. However, it has no living relative anymore and looks like a European language.

Learn more about language families-diversity of structures.

The Agricultural Stage

R. M. W. Dixon discusses how languages have evolved in his book The Rise and Fall of Languages. He says when humans were living as hunters and gatherers, they did not need to move much. They lived in small groups, and each group spoke a language without much need to communicate with other groups. This situation changed later when human beings started farming.

They began settling down and the societies became bigger, which increased the need for more space. So, people began migrating to other lands, where other people were already living. The new group and the old group needed to communicate, and the languages came into contact. Eventually, the languages exchanged grammatical traits and vocabulary, diverging from their source.

Linguistic Equilibrium

When people began moving to other places and met new groups, they needed to communicate. As they were blending in and learning new things from each other, so were their languages. The trend continued until the languages were very similar. This is what Dixon calls linguistic equilibrium.

Today, in Australia, the same thing is happening. Different tribes are so interconnected because of the inter-tribe marriages that it is almost impossible to trace their languages back to the original Proto-Australian.

Invasions, migrations, and sometimes even geographical upheavals all helped linguistic equilibrium and evolution of languages. However, the past 10,000-12,000 years were especially important in the process.

Learn more about language mixture-grammar.

Linguistic Development

In the past millennium, people moved farther from their homes in search of better living conditions and enough resources. Thus, their language moved from an area with similar languages to a completely different environment.

Usually, after a big move, the new language either replaces the old one or mixes with them. Replacing is the more common outcome, and that is when a language is in the making and has the freedom to develop differently, outside the context of similar languages.

When linguistic equilibrium is in process, all the languages involved lend and borrow traits until they look very much alike. No one language is specifying the dimension of the changes; rather, they all change together. The Sinosphere is a good example, where Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, and Thai have developed to look very similar, despite their completely different sources.

On the other hand, when a group moved into a totally empty land, their language began to evolve in a different way. It had no contact with other languages anymore, and it developed independently, creating something like Proto Indo-European.

Learn more about does culture drive language change?


Unlike linguistic equilibrium, punctuation happens fast. Proto Indo-European was probably formed somewhere in the Middle East or Turkey. When the Proto Indo-European speakers moved to the west, they were far from their home languages. Thus, their language developed into a completely different thing, unrecognizably different from the source.

Soon after, there was a proliferation of a whole new Proto Indo-European family. All of these happened quite quickly and is called punctuation, in contrast to the slow equilibrium. Dixon based his idea on a similar theory of evolution by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge.

They introduced punctuated equilibrium, where evolution happened quickly, not in a very slow process. They based their theory on the fact that fossil records do not show a very steady change in species.

Whether slow or fast, languages evolve into their new forms, which might be extremely different from their family and very similar to members of a completely diverse family.

Common Questions about Linguistic Equilibrium and Punctuation

Q: What is linguistic equilibrium?

Linguistic equilibrium is how languages slowly evolve into things similar to, for example, their geographical neighbors. They exchange traits until they look as if they are from the same family while they are not.

Q: Is one language dominant in linguistic equilibrium?

When linguistic equilibrium is in process, all the languages involved lend and borrow traits until they look very much alike. No one language is specifying the dimension of the changes; rather, they all change together.

Q: What is Punctuation?

The opposing theory, in terms of evolution speed, to linguistic equilibrium is called punctuation. R. M. W. Dixon believed that linguistic changes took place quickly, which he termed as punctuation.

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