Department of Linguistics
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
phone.: +49 (0) 341 3550 - 300
fax: +49 (0) 341 3550 - 333
The Department of Linguistics investigates the diversity of human language and the historical processes underlying this diversity.
Diversity of Human Language
We are interested in finding out what properties are common to all human languages ("language universals") and the ways in which languages can differ from each other ("linguistic typology"). Beyond this, we aim to answer the question why language universals and cross-linguistic variation are the way they are. To this end, we study various phenomena across a wide range of languages. Our work makes reference to formal properties of language, to the cognitive bases of language, and to aspects of language in use.
As part of our work on the cross-linguistic study of various phenomena, we also work on the descriptive grammars of various little studied, and often endangered, languages. Today about 6,500 languages are spoken world-wide, most of them are endangered. A quarter of these languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, and many of them are already moribund (no longer learnt by children). To preserve or at least document as many languages as possible, members of the department are investigating indigenous languages across the world. They spend extended periods of time in the area where the language is spoken, work on descriptive grammars, compile dictionaries, and collect texts.
Children are able to learn any human language provided they grow up in the appropriate linguistic and social environment. In collaboration with the Department of Psychology, we study whether children learning different languages use the same learning strategies or whether their strategies differ according the linguistic environment in which they grow up.
We are interested in the ways in which linguistic evidence can be used, often together with evidence from other fields, to provide solutions to problems of human prehistory. As part of this investigation, we also study comparable contemporary situations to provide a basis for more detailed modeling of earlier times.
Particular problems on which we are currently engaged include the establishment of the "family tree" of the world's languages, i.e. the extent to which it can be shown that particular languages (a "language family") descend from a single ancestor, and the principles that underlie the establishment of language families. We are interested in both similarities and differences in relation to the biological genetic tree of humanity.
To establish trees, we also need to know more about the role of language change and language contact in giving rise to similarities between languages that cut across family tree boundaries; this includes in particular work on perhaps the most extreme instances of language contact, namely creole and pidgin languages. As for change, not all logically possible kinds of diachronic change are actually attested, and certain kinds of change recur in language after language. We are interested in discovering limits on possible language changes, in particular in unidirectional changes such as grammaticalization.
Another important issue is how linguistic evidence, together with evidence from other fields, like genetics and archeology, can be used to shed light on human prehistory. As part of this investigation, researchers of the department study comparable contemporary situations to provide a basis for modeling earlier times in more detail. They work on the "family tree" of various of the world's language families, trying to reconstruct the ancestor of each family. They will then be able to show that particular languages descend from a single ancestor, and understand the principles that underlie the establishment of language families.
An ongoing cooperation between the Department of Linguistics and the population genetics group in the Department of Genetics brings together information on population histories as inferred from linguistic data and compares it with the results obtained from molecular anthropological studies.