Pre-conference workshop on Diachronic Stability


The programme is now available.



The determinants of diachronic stability


That human languages are constantly evolving is an undeniable fact. By now, theories have become very apt at dealing with linguistic variation and change. But the reality is that populations are in constant flux, socially and linguistically. Much of what used to be considered “internally caused change” might perhaps more appropriately have to be considered as contact-induced on the level of contact between varieties of a single diasystem. This realization turns the faithful stable transmission of linguistic features where it does occur into an urgent explanandum. Different linguistic subfields have responded to this in different ways, and many questions still need to be addressed.


  • Within the field of typology, the question of diachronically and cross-linguistically more stable traits of languages has been put on the agenda mainly by the work of Johanna Nichols (Nichols 1992).
  • From a markedness point of view, inflectional classes apparently needlessly complicate morphological systems and lead to the expectation that they should be diachronically unstable (e.g. Wurzel 1989). The fact that this is empirically not confirmed is in need of explanation (e.g. Lass 1990).
  • While there is no question that language contact may induce change (e.g. Thomason & Kaufman 1988), it has only more recently been noted that there may also be linguistic stability in spite of language contact, and that it may, in some cases, even be contact-induced (e.g. Trudgill 2011, Braunmüller et al. eds. 2014).
  • A further question that has not yet satisfyingly been answered is why, given the same or similar input conditions in different languages, some linguistic changes never happen, or, once initiated, stall (e.g. Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968, Labov 1994; 2001).
  • More recently, the related question of whether there can be such a thing as stable variation in language, and how it interacts with language change has been added to the research agenda (e.g. Wallenberg 2013, Fruehwald & Wallenberg in prep).
  • It is unclear what the influence of type and token frequency is on keeping certain properties diachronically stable. On the one hand, research on grammaticalization has indicated that highly frequent items are more likely to grammaticalize, and therefore, low frequency of usage might be expected to favour stability. On the other hand, highly frequent elements often resist analogical change, so in this sense, ‘low frequency items’ are expected to be more prone to change.
  • Finally, the role of extra-linguistic factors such as normative pressure in keeping linguistic phenomena constant should be studied more systematically, and with an eye on interaction with the language internal factors mentioned above.


The workshop takes place on 28 June 2016, the day before the start of DiGS 18. Its goal is to bring together researchers from different areas of linguistics to discuss the determinants of diachronic stability from their individual perspectives, with the aim of fostering dialogue between them.



Keynote speakers:

Sheila Watts (Cambridge)

Joel C. Wallenberg (Newcastle)


Call for papers:

We invite abstracts for 30+10-minute presentations on any subset of the questions raised above, presenting new findings, data or methods to study the determinants of diachronic stability. Abstracts should comprise maximally two pages A4, have min. 1-inch margins, and are restricted to maximally one per (co)-author. While taking place in conjunction with DiGS 18 (29 June-1 July 2016), the focus of the workshop goes beyond diachronic syntax, and includes phonology, morphology, semantics, typology, and sociolinguistics.




Selected references

Braunmüller, Kurt, Steffen Höder & Karoline Kühl (eds.). 2014. Stability and divergence in language contact: factors and mechanisms. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of linguistic change, vol. 1: internal factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Labov, William. 2001. Principles of linguistic change, vol. 2: social factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lass, Roger. 1990. How to do things with junk: Exaptation in language evolution. Journal of Linguistics 26: 79-102.

Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Language diversity in space and time. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Thomason, Sarah Grey & Terrence Kaufman. 1988. Language contact, creolization and genetic linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011. Sociolinguistic typology: social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wallenberg, Joel C. 2013. A unified theory of stable variation, syntactic optionality, and syntactic change. Paper presented at DiGS 15, University of Ottawa, 02 August 2013.

Wallenberg, Joel C. & Josef Fruehwald. 2013. Optionality is Stable Variation is Competing Grammars. Paper presented at 25th Scandinavian Conference of Linguistics, Formal Ways of Analyzing Variation (FWAV) Workshop. SCL 25 Háskóli Íslands (University of Iceland). 15 May, 2013

Weinreich, Uriel, William Labov & Marvin Herzog. 1968. Empirical foundations for a theory of language change. In: Lehmann, W. & Y. Malkiel (eds.), Directions for historical linguistics: a symposium, Austin: University of Texas Press, 95-188.

Wurzel, Wolfgang. 1989. Inflectional morphology and naturalness. Dordrecht: Kluwer.




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