Reading Evolutionary Biology Group - Current Research

Linguistics and Cultural Evolution

We are working on methods for inferring phylogenetic trees of languages and using those trees to measure rates of word evolution over time. In collaboration with Russell Gray at the University of Auckland, we are applying these methods to Indo-European, Bantu, Austronesian, Mayan and Uto-Aztecan languages.
We are particularly interested in why some words evolve at higher rates than others, and have developed the idea of the linguistic half-life. We have identified some meanings whose words evolve slowly enough to have time-depths of at least 20,000 years, making them candidates for deep reconstruction of languages including perhaps proto-IndoEuropean or earlier such as Nostratic.
Our studies of cultural evolution investigate the idea that human cultures behave as if they were distinct biological species.

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