Video Fix: Theories of Language Evolution

October 11, 2017 4:46 pm

Can you find similarities in these words?

  • bōya – boy
  • zuckercukor – sugar
  • manusmainmano

At the same time, do you think these words are related to each other?

  • chien – sobaka – gǒu (Macwhorter: 2015)
  • latteleche
  • pāda – foot


Those sample words in different languages have the same meanings. Some of them are actually similar if you look for regular patterns or sound changes from earlier languages.  This is related to changes and evolution of languages. How do languages change and evolve? A TED-Ed video explains “how linguists group languages into language families, demonstrating how these linguistic trees give us crucial insights into the past” (Gendler: 2014).

Other linguists and researchers have different theories about the evolution of languages. An older research by Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom (1990) theorizes that “languages have evolved from a number of calls or gestures gradually transformed in combinations, complex communication, or languages”. Mark Pagel and colleagues (2008) applied statistical tools to the analysis of three of the world’s major language groups: Indo-European, Austronesian, and Bantu in “punctuational bursts of change”. In contrast, Salikoko Mufwene argues that language evolution was far from abrupt. “The phylogenetic evolution of language must have been gradual and incremental” (Mufwene: 2009).

Which theory do you agree with? Do you know any other theory of language evolution? We encourage you to share your thoughts with us.



  • Gendler, A. (2014). TED-Ed: How Languages Evolve. Available at: (Accessed 9 October 2017)
  • Mufwene, S. (2009). The Evolution of Language: Hints from Creoles and Pidgins. Available at: (Accessed 9 October 2017)
  • Pagel, M. et al. (2008). Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts. Available at: (Accessed 9 October 2017)
  • Pinker, S. & Bloom, S. (1990). Natural Language and Natural Selection. Available at: (Accessed 9 October 2017)

Written by Agusmia Putri Haerani – Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. Student of Master in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts in the University of Luxembourg. Social Media Student Assistant of the University of Luxembourg.

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