Max Planck diversity linguistics redux: Welcome to “Linguistic and Cultural Evolution” in Jena

With Bernard Comrie’s retirement at the end of May 2015, the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will close (only two staff members with permanent contracts, David Gil and I, will remain, but will join some other department, without special funding for linguistics). Many linguists who appreciated the work that we have been doing over the last 16 years expressed dismay about this, but it’s actually a perfectly normal development. Unlike university departments, which exist independently of particular professors, departments at Max Planck institutes only last as long as their director is active. After that, a new department in a similar area may be founded (funds permitting) by the Max Planck Society, but this is preceded by a lengthy discussion, and preference is often given to new fields that are not sufficiently established in Germany’s research context. Since linguistics is only one of the numerous subfields with relevance to “evolutionary anthropology”, it surprised nobody that the Max Planck Society wants to devote the new department that will occupy our offices after 2015 to a different subfield, human behavioral ecology, a kind of evolutionarily oriented cultural anthropology. Thus, researchers in Leipzig will continue to do research on small, traditional societies, including fieldwork and large-scale databases, but with a focus on cultural and behavioural practices other than language.

But this is not the end of world-wide diversity linguistics within the Max Planck Society. Earlier this month, a new Max Planck Institute was founded in Jena (just an hour from Leipzig by train, in beautiful Thuringia), called “Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences”. It is currently in its start-up phase, and will not work at full scale before 2015. When the two directors of the former Max Planck Institute of Economics retired, the Max Planck Society decided to reorient the research of this institute and give it a focus on history, but with methods going far beyond what traditional historians have been using, in particular DNA sequencing and evolutionary methods in reconstructing linguistic and cultural evolution. The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution will be headed by Russell Gray, who has long been well-known in the area of large-scale historical comparative linguistics, especially for Indo-European (e.g. Gray & Atkinson 2003; Bouckaert et al. 2012) and Austronesian linguistics (e.g. Gray & Jordan 2000, Gray et al. 2009), but also language typology (Dunn et al. 2011; Levinson et al. 2011), and has been instrumental in making a large comparative lexical database for Austronesian languages available.

This is a very fortunate development, because the CLLD databases (World Atlas of Languages Structure, APiCS Online, etc.) that were put together and/or published by the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology will survive in this way – otherwise they would have been severely endangered, at least the web applications that make them so easy to use. Robert Forkel, the technical director of CLLD databases, will move from MPI-EVA Leipzig to MPI Jena, and more databases will probably be developed by Russell Gray and his team.

Of course, Russell Gray is not originally and not only a linguist, and his methods and publication venues are not the ones of traditional linguists. But this is precisely why the Max Planck Society decided to make him the director of this new department: They feel that historical linguistics holds a lot of potential, and that by applying new quantitative methods to the available data, significant progress can be made in understanding human history at a world-wide scale. This is not how most linguists see things. The great majority regard the relation between language and cognition as much more interesting than (large-scale) historical linguistics, and this is understandable because most linguists just work on a single language. But outside of our field, the big historical questions and the possible answers that linguists can give seem to have a much greater attraction (note that very few linguists were involved in deciding on this new department).

In this connection, I have heard two pessimistic views: On the one hand, linguists have expressed the view that researchers who only contribute quantitative methods but do not have full control over the data will make too many mistakes to make serious progress (see, e.g., Martin W. Lewis’s critique of Bouckaert et al. 2012). Linguists often privately express frustration that nonlinguists get a lot of attention for their work on language history, and they feel that real linguists should be doing this work. But I’m not pessimistic here: It’s clear that knowing a lot about languages will help, but it’s also clear that one cannot know everything, so people with different kinds of expertise should collaborate. Russell Gray has repeatedly collaborated with linguists, and all indications are that there will be some “real linguists” in his team in Jena. So if some of our colleagues outside of our narrow field have skills that allow them to place their papers in high-impact journals, that will benefit all of us. Moreover, there is an increasing number of linguists in the younger generation who are learning these quantitative tools.

Another pessimistic view is that unless linguists manage to get into the high-profile journals, they will not have the kind of funding that they deserve: Linguists should all behave like Russell Gray and his associates and try to publish in high-profile general-interest journals. Again, I’m optimistic: I don’t think that linguists are in danger of losing their funding, because language is such a ubiquitous phenomenon, so we don’t have to worry that somehow the study of language will not be supported by the society. There will always be many people whose main interest is in Sanskrit meter, or in the pragmatics of Early Modern English law texts, or in the interaction between Japanese phonology and Kana symbols. One doesn’t need any knowledge of sophisticated statistical algorithms to study these phenomena, so one won’t get into Nature with one’s research. Maybe one won’t have huge research budgets, but human curiosity will always find its way to further insights in all areas of language.

Thus, even if the new Jena department may not support the kind of longer-term fieldwork and sophisticated grammatical theory that has (also) been done at MPI-EVA Leipzig, it will contribute to the larger quest of understanding the nature of human language(s) and the diversity and history of languages. Welcome to a new venture, and good luck!

When MPI-EVA holds its last big conference in early May 2015, Russell Gray will be a plenary speaker, and will present his vision. Everyone is welcome to Leipzig to say farewell to Leipzig MPI linguistics, and to welcome Jena MPI linguistics.


Bouckaert, Remco, Philippe Lemey, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Alexei J. Drummond, Russell D. Gray, Marc A. Suchard & Quentin D. Atkinson. 2012. Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family. Science 337(6097). 957–960. (

Dunn, Michael, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson & Russell D. Gray. 2011. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals. Nature 473(7345). 79–82.

Gray, Russell D. & Quentin D. Atkinson. 2003. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature 426(6965). 435–439.

Gray, R. D., A. J. Drummond & S. J. Greenhill. 2009. Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement. Science 323(5913). 479–483. (

Gray, Russell D. & Fiona M. Jordan. 2000. Language trees support the express-train sequence of Austronesian expansion. Nature 405(6790). 1052–1055.

Greenhill, Simon J., Blust, Robert, & Gray, Russell D. 2005. The Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD).

Levinson, Stephen C., Simon J. Greenhill, Russell D. Gray & Michael Dunn. 2011. Universal typological dependencies should be detectable in the history of language families. Linguistic Typology 15. 509–534.