PARC Forum, 10-17-96, Johanna Nichols, "The origin and dispersal of language"

Date: Fri Oct 11 1996 - 13:54:45 EDT


Date: 10 Oct 96 17:33:44 PDT (Thursday)
Subject: PARC Forum, 10-17-96, Johanna Nichols, "The origin and dispersal of language"

Xerox PARC Forum
Thursday, October 17, 1996, 4:00PM, PARC Auditorium

The origin, diversification, and dispersal of language

Johanna Nichols
University of California, Berkeley

        Languages change over time, and the changes are sufficiently
numerous, rapid, and pervasive that after about 8000 years of cumulative
lexical and grammatical change there is little chance that any diagnostic
evidence of shared descent will survive in what are actually sister
languages. Hence the origin and ancient prehistory of languages cannot be
recovered by tracing the descent of today's languages. On the other hand,
the fact that firm evidence of common descent evaporates by about 8000
years, and the fact that the well-established and reconstructable
linguistic lineages are rarely more than about 6000 years old, makes it
possible to sample the structural and genetic diversity of the world's
languages at a controlled time depth, taking each of the roughly 300
traceable lineages to be an independent unit about 6000 years of age. For
the last several years I have been using such a sample to define the
distribution among the world's language families of what I call *historical
markers*: grammatical features which are (a) demonstrably slow-changing
and consistent in language families of great age (so we know that any
sharing of historical markers probably did not arise yesterday), (b) of low
frequency worldwide (so sharings between families are unusual and merit
attention), and (c) have statistically significant variation in frequency
from continent to continent or large area to large area (so we know these
variations are not due to universals or random chance but have real
historical meaning). Historical markers can identify large populations of
language families for which some long-standing shared geography and history
can then be inferred. The markers can be used to estimate an age for human
language and describe major trajectories of early expansion, routes and
chronology of the colonization of the Pacific and the New World, and
vectors of language spread in interior Eurasia and within the New World.
The overall picture is on the whole consistent with what is suggested by
research in molecular genetics, though the linguistic distributions
increase both the chronological and the geographical precision. The result
is a picture -- an abstract but fairly rich picture -- of language types
and language origins reaching back to the upper Paleolithic.

Johanna Nichols is Professor in the Slavic Languages Department at UC Berkeley.
Her research interests include the Slavic languages, the linguistic prehistory
of northern Eurasia, language typology, linguistic prehistory, and
languages of the Caucasus, chiefly Chechen and Ingush.

This Forum is OPEN to the public.

Host: Marshall Bern 415-812-4443 <>

Web site:

Refreshments will be served from 3:45 - 4:00PM.

The PARC Auditorium is located at 3333 Coyote Hill Road in Palo Alto. We
are located in the Stanford Research Park, between Page Mill Road (west of
Foothill Expressway) and Hillview Avenue. The easiest way to get here is
to take Page Mill Road to Coyote Hill Road, and, as you drive up Coyote
Hill between the horse pastures, PARC is the only building on the left
after you crest the hill. Please park in the large (lower) lot to your
right; enter the auditorium at the upper level of the building. (The
auditorium entrance is located to the left of the main door and down the


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.2 : Tue Jul 10 2001 - 17:20:32 EDT