Linguists speculate that human languages often evolve in rapid or punctuational bursts, sometimes associated with their emergence from other languages, but this phenomenon has never been demonstrated. We use vocabulary data from three of the world’s major language groups – Bantu, Indo-European and Austronesian – to show that 10-33% of the overall vocabulary differences among these languages arises from rapid bursts of change associated with language splitting events. Our findings identify a general tendency for increased rates of linguistic evolution in fledgling languages, perhaps arising from a linguistic ‘founder effect’ or a desire to establish a distinct social identity.

save Download