Tag Archives: language change

Evolutionary biology, mathematical models and language study – an unexpected mix

Language is an inherited system of information – we inherit the language of our parents in much the same way that we inherit their genes …

And why is that useful? Because we can use language to study questions about human history. That’s what the Radio 4 programme Material World discussed on 28 February 2013.

Evolutionary biologists at Reading University have been looking at the language of Homer’s Iliad so they could work out exactly when it was written.


So what did they do?

  • they looked at the many different copies of The Iliad to put together an ‘original’ version of Homer’s oral poem
  • they compared the vocabulary and turns of phrase with Modern Greek
  • they studied the rate of replacement of two hundred common words (e.g. body parts, colours, family relationships, pronouns, numbers)

Using their mathematical model, they found that closed class words evolved slowly and open class words more quickly. 

To find out more – including a ‘precise’ date for Homer’s poem – use the link below :

Scroll through to 22:11 to find the start of the discussion.

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The Death of Cromarty

How many people noticed the end of Cromarty, a fisherfolk dialect? 12065731951765855270johnny_automatic_New_England_fisherman.svg.medFortunately, a researcher collected examples of Cromarty dialect words and recordings were made of the language before the death of its last native speaker in October 2012.

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Should we make concerted efforts to ensure the survival of minority languages? Or should they be left as charming relics of a by-gone age in a world where language is increasingly homogenised by our use of electronic media?

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