Correlates of Language Change

Correlates of Language Change in Hunter-Gatherer and other ‘small’ languages

Claire Bowern
Language and Linguistics Compass
Volume 4, Issue 8, pages 665–679, August 2010

I review linguistic and interdisciplinary research on the non-linguistic correlates of language change, particularly as they apply to small populations, highly mobile groups, and hunter-gatherers. I summarize the areas which have been argued to display differences between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists, small and large populations, and sedentary and non-sedentary ones, although finding that none of this work is conclusive and much is contradictory. Hunter-gatherer languages in particular have played a prominent role in the development of theories of language change in addition to the comparative method and family trees, but for the wrong reasons, since the comparative method is powerful for diagnosing relationships even in the case of heavy borrowing where tree models are not useful. The field is in great need of systematization, and of incorporating current knowledge about variation and the spread of change with reconstruction over a longer time span.