How can diachrony help explain typological distributions?

Quite a few people have argued in recent times that typological distributions should be explained with reference to diachronic change (e.g. Bybee (1988; 2006; 2008), Blevins (2004), Anderson (2005; 2016), (Plank 2007), Creissels (2008), and Cristofaro (2010; 2013; 2014)). As Bickel et al. (2015: 29) put it:

“statistical universals are not really synchronic in nature, but are rather the result of underlying diachronic mechanisms that cause languages to change in preferred or ‘natural’ ways”

This view seems to have been articulated first by Greenberg (1969; 1978),
but apparently due to the influence of Chomskyan linguistics, functionally oriented typologists have long preferred purely synchronic ways of explaining typological distributions (and within generative linguistics, the diachronic approach has been favoured even less; Stephen Anderson’s work is a remarkable exception).

However, I see three serious problems in part of this literature:

(A) Recurrent paths of change cannot explain universal tendencies; universal tendencies can only be explained by constraints on possible changes (mutational constraints).

(B) Diverse convergent changes cannot be explained without reference to preferred results.

(C) If observed universal tendencies are plausible adaptations to language users’ needs, there is no need to justify the functional explanation in diachronic terms.

Thus, while everyone agrees that common paths of change (or common sources) have an important role to play in our understanding of language structure, I would argue that the changes are often adaptive and result-oriented, and that in such cases a precise understanding of the diachronic mechanisms is not necessary (though of course still desirable).

It is important to note that I’m only talking about explanation of universal tendencies here, i.e. statements of the form “In all or the great majority of languages…”. Of course, many linguists are also interested in language-particular explanation, or in the explanation of widespread phenomena (e.g. languages often have ergative-genitive syncretism, or number suppletion, or noun incorporation), but I am not optimistic about general explanations for particular phenomena, or phenomena that are merely “frequent” (which is a subjective notion anyway).

So here are my points concerning the issues (A)-(C) raised above.

(A) Recurrent paths of change (e.g. the common development of future tense forms from ‘want’, or of ergative alignment from nominalizations) are interesting in that they seem to show that a phenomenon in some particular language is not accidental. But it seems that no strong falsifiable claims can be made about recurrent paths. Thus, when Bybee (2006: 179) claims (on the basis of recurrent paths of change in the tense-aspect domain, as documented in Bybee et al. 1994) that

“the true universals of language are not synchronic patterns at all, but the mechanisms of change that create these patterns”

I do not understand what she has in mind. What is “universal” about common paths such as “have > perfect”, “located at > progressive”, and “movement > future”? They are no doubt common developments, but unlike real universal tendencies, such generalizations cannot be falsified, because the scope is not universal. The same problem arises with some of Anderson’s claims, e.g. regarding the development of ergative patterns in past/perfective contexts (though here one might claim that there is a synchronic universal tendency).

It seems clear to me that in order to explain universal tendencies, one needs to appeal to something that is stronger than “common paths of change”, namely change constraints, or mutational constraints (as I have come to call them to highlight their special nature, previously insufficiently recognized). For example, linguists have often noted directionality constraints (Haspelmath 2004), and sometimes there is widespread agreement about source constraints, i.e. that certain outcomes have only a single possible source (for example, infixes always come from metathesized affixes, Plank 2007: 51). On the basis of such mutational constraints, one can indeed explain universal tendencies (e.g. that infixes always occur peripherally in the stem). In syntax, one might explain adposition-noun order correlations on the basis of the source constraint that adpositions only ever arise from possessed nouns in adpossessive constructions, or from verbs in transitive constructions, Aristar 1991).

(B) It is sometimes observed that there may be diverse convergent changes leading to very similar results. For example, Cristofaro (2014) notes that there are a number of different ways in which the singular-plural opposition can come to be marked in languages (e.g. from demonstratives, genitives, distributives, collectives, quantifiers). But why do all these changes converge on patterns where the plural is at least as clearly coded as the singular? Similarly, I observed earlier about Anderson (2016):

“Anderson notes that there are multiple ways in which perfective constructions give ergative patterns, and imperfective constructions give accusative patterns, which he says “happen to converge”, resulting in a “synchronically accidental correlation”. But if the correlation is accidental, the prediction would be that we should see an equal number of cases of the opposite development, once we look at enough languages.”

Thus, if there are indeed diverse changes that converge on similar results, and especially if the results are universal tendencies, then this must be because of preferred results – in other words, synchronic states that are more adaptive than others and that somehow guide the changes (I have also spoken informally about “pull forces” ).

So here it is not diachrony that explains synchronic distributions, but adaptive constraints that explain diachronic changes. (I would be reluctant to say that these adaptive constraints are “synchronic factors”, because “synchrony” refers to the language system, and these factors are system-external. Maybe one could call them “panchronic” constraints.)

(C) Adaptation to users’ needs is analogous to adaptive explanations in other domains of cultural and biological evolution. Thus, anthropologists sometimes explain religion by prosociality, or monogamy by group-beneficial effects (e.g. Paciotti et al. 2012; Henrich et al. 2012). There is no perceived need in this literature to show that the mechanisms by which religion or monogamy arise must be of a particular type. Basically, when the result is preferred, any kind of change can give rise to the result, and we do not need to understand the nature of the change, let alone show that the change was motivated by the result. The explanation goes through because of the close fit between the observed universal tendencies and the adaptive motivation.

This is thus my answer to Cristofaro’s (2013; 2014) critique of functional explanation in typology. Cristofaro argues that it is a problem (or at least a “challenge”) to functional explanations of universal tendencies that the mechanisms of change are not clearly motivated by the preferred results – they can be of diverse sorts, related to grammaticalization or reinterpretation:

“any model of the principles that lead to the use of particular constructions … should take into account the diachronic development of these constructions, rather than just their synchronic distribution” (Cristofaro 2014: 297)

I certainly think that studying the diachronic mechanisms is interesting, and I also agree that the kind of source of a change may determine parts of the outcome, but to the extent that the outcomes are universal tendencies, I would simply deny the relevance of fully understanding the mechanisms. In many of the cases that Cristofaro discusses, I feel that the “pull force” of the preferred outcome may well have played a role in the change, though I do not see how I could show this, or how one could show that it did not play a role.

Thus, it is clear that we need to continue to play close attention to diachronic developments when studying cross-linguistic patterns, but we need to be clear about what it is that we want to explain (language-particular idiosyncrasies, common patterns, or universal tendencies), and we need to be clearer what the diachronic regularities are that we invoke (recurrent paths of change, or true mutational constraints).


P.S. A note on terminology: I do not distinguish strictly between preferences, constraints and restrictions – they are motivating factors (= factors involved in causal explanation), though one may distinguish between very strong factors (restrictions) and weaker factors (preferences). In addition to adaptive constraints and mutational constraints (source constraints or directionality constraints), perhaps one needs representational constraints as well (i.e. cognitive constraints on what is a possible grammar, i.e. the kinds of restrictions invoked in generative grammar).



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Aristar, Anthony R. 1991. On diachronic sources and synchronic pattern: An investigation into the origin of linguistic universals. Language 67(1). 1–33.

Anderson, Stephen R. 2016. Synchronic versus diachronic explanation and the nature of the Language Faculty. Annual Review of Linguistics 2(1).

Bickel, Balthasar, Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Taras Zakharko & Giorgio Iemmolo. 2015. Exploring diachronic universals of agreement: Alignment patterns and zero marking across person categories. In Jürg Fleischer, Elisabeth Rieken & Paul Widmer (eds.), Agreement from a diachronic perspective, 29–51. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Blevins, Juliette. 2004. Evolutionary phonology: The emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bybee, Joan L. 1988. The diachronic dimension in explanation. In John A. Hawkins (ed.), Explaining language universals, 350–379. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bybee, Joan L., Revere Perkins & William Pagliuca. 1994. The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect and modality in the languages of the world. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bybee, Joan. 2006. Language change and universals. In Ricardo Mairal & Juana Gil (eds.), Linguistic universals, 179–194. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bybee, Joan. 2008. Formal universals as emergent phenomena: The origins of structure preservation. In Jeff Good (ed.), Linguistic universals and language change, 108–121. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Creissels, Denis. 2008. Direct and indirect explanations of typological regularities: The case of alignment variations. Folia Linguistica 42(1). 1–38.

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2010. Semantic maps and mental representation. Linguistic Discovery 8(1). 35–52.

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2013. The referential hierarchy: Reviewing the evidence in diachronic perspective. In Dik Bakker & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), Languages across boundaries: Studies in memory of Anna Siewierska, 69–93. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1969. Some methods of dynamic comparison in linguistics. In Jan Puhvel (ed.), Substance and structure of language, 147–203. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1978. Diachrony, synchrony and language universals. In Joseph H Greenberg, Charles A Ferguson & Edith A Moravcsik (eds.), Universals of human language I: method and theory, 61 – 92. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2004. On directionality in language change with particular reference to grammaticalization. In Olga Fischer, Muriel Norde & Harry Perridon (eds.), Up and down the cline: The nature of grammaticalization, 17–44. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Henrich, Joseph, Robert Boyd & Peter J. Richerson. 2012. The puzzle of monogamous marriage. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 367(1589). 657–669. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0290.

Paciotti, B., Richerson, P. J., Lubell, M., Waring, T., McElreath, R., Efferson, C., & Edsten, E. (2012). Are Religious Individuals More Generous, Trusting, and Cooperative? An Experimental Test of the Effect of Religion on Prosociality

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7 thoughts on “How can diachrony help explain typological distributions?

  1. Pingback: An interview with Sonia Cristofaro about diachronic change and typological explanation | Diversity Linguistics Comment

  2. Pingback: An interview with Sonia Cristofaro about diachronic change and typological explanation | Diversity Linguistics Comment

  3. Thank you for these thoughts Martin. They are interesting and informative, and I agree with them. In particular, I agree that bone fide explanations can only come from identification of the factors that causally influence the direction of change, whether in particular cases, or in general.

    Actually, a general framework for causal explanations of this sort has been developed by Dan Sperber and his colleagues, under the name of ‘cultural attraction’. The idea of ‘pull forces’ seems, informally, to be much the same as that of attraction. I think there is a great deal of common ground here.

    Yet, while Sperber’s aims are to explain cultural phenomena (he is/was an anthropologist by training), and while languages are cultural phenomena par excellence, nobody has yet applied cultural attraction theory to this domain. I hope/aim to do so myself sometime soon, and this post will be very helpful for that.

    • @Tom: ‘nobody’ may be too strong… Nick Enfield’s ‘Natural causes of language’ is a book-length study about transmission biases and causal frames in the cultural evolution of language. It builds on Sperber’s work (and that of others) in several key ways.

      The book is published in our open access series Conceptual Foundations of Language Science – download it here:

      • Fair enough! I knew of Enfield’s book, but haven’t had the chance to look at it yet… so I just downloaded it, and I see that there is a good discussion there. This is a welcome development.

        Incidentally, I like Enfield’s emphasis on what he calls the enchronic frame, and the corresponding distinction between iterated practice and iterated learning. So thank you for pointing this out.

        • Glad you’ve seen it—and sorry for misspelling your name 😉

  4. Thanks, Martin, for this refreshing viewpoint. I think I basically agree with the points you mentioned (although I should re-read them more thoroughly), but regarding your “pull forces”, which you describe as:

    > synchronic states that are more adaptive than others and that somehow guide the changes (I have also spoken informally about “pull forces” ),

    I am not quite sure whether we actually need “adaptivity” as a criterion to explain them. If you assume a directed network of changes in which you have components with a high in-degree, that is many incoming changes from different states, it may well be possible that they only seem to be stable, because there are so many roads that lead to them, while one may easily ignore how many roads also lead away from them (just like big cities with many inhabitants, which nevertheless often have a high fluctuation of inhabitants). In these cases, I have the impression, the question of diachrony may play some role, but not with respect to the changes that took place in order to arrive at a certain state, but rather with respect to the persistence of a certain state once it was reached. Maybe I don’t really get the notion of “adaptivity” here, and my apologies if I completely mess the thought up, but if we synchronically have a very frequent pattern in the languages of the world, I would expect, that we cannot directly decide whether it is due to the stability of the state of the pattern once it is reached or to its connectivity in the network of change (so, roughly speaking, whether we talk about a city where many people pass by or a city where many people settle down).

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