Course: An evolutionary approach to language change

Times: 9:30am - 1pm

Dates: Monday and Tuesday, 2-3 December 2019

Instructor: Professor Bill Croft, The University of New Mexico

Registration: Please register here for Summer School 2019



There has been a substantial increase of interest in evolutionary theories in relation to language. While much of this interest is focused on the evolutionary origin of the language capacity, this course will instead focus on evolutionary models of language change. The aim is to introduce to linguists theories of evolutionary change that can be applied to language change (and more generally, cultural transmission) as well as to biological evolution, as well as what is distinctive about both biological and cultural/linguistic evolution.

Assumed knowledge

Knowledge of the material typically covered in a basic course in historical linguistics would be useful, and knowledge typically covered in a basic course in variationist sociolinguistics would be even more useful. Non-linguists who have a background in evolutionary biology and introductory linguistics are also welcome.

Background knowledge

This review article covers general topics in evolutionary models in linguistics:

  • William Croft. 2008. “Evolutionary linguistics”. Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol.37, ed. William H. Durham, Donald Brenneis and Peter T. Ellison, 219-34. Palo Alto, Calif.: Annual Reviews.

Some of the material to be presented in the course is covered in depth in the following articles:

  • Gareth J. Baxter, Richard A. Blythe, William Croft and Alan J. McKane. 2009. “Modeling language change: an evaluation of Trudgill’s theory of the emergence of New Zealand English.” Language Variation and Change 21.157-96.
  • Richard A. Blythe and William Croft. 2012. “S -curves and the mechanisms of propagation in language change.” Language 88.269-304.
  • Gareth Baxter and William Croft. 2016. “Modeling language change across the lifespan: individual trajectories in community change.” Language Variation and Change 28.129-73.


Although time is limited, and modeling software will not be available, Professor Croft welcomes students who have historical linguistic data that might bear on the issues discussed in the course.


The first half of the course will present the philosopher David Hull's General Analysis of Selection, and how it applies to language, including possible adaptations and revisions to the model; and what that model implies about language structure and language change. The second half will focus largely on mechanisms of language change, how mathematical modeling can be used to test various proposed mechanisms, and what features of language change they appear to account for.

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