Inferring recent evolutionary changes in speech sounds

Steven Moran*, Nicholas A. Lester, Eitan Grossman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


In this paper, we investigate evolutionarily recent changes in the distributions of speech sounds in the world's languages. In particular, we explore the impact of language contact in the past two millennia on today's distributions. Based on three extensive databases of phonological inventories, we analyse the discrepancies between the distribution of speech sounds of ancient and reconstructed languages, on the one hand, and those in present-day languages, on the other. Furthermore, we analyse the degree to which the diffusion of speech sounds via language contact played a role in these discrepancies. We find evidence for substantive differences between ancient and present-day distributions, as well as for the important role of language contact in shaping these distributions over time. Moreover, our findings suggest that the distributions of speech sounds across geographic macro-areas were homogenized to an observable extent in recent millennia. Our findings suggest that what we call the Implicit Uniformitarian Hypothesis, at least with respect to the composition of phonological inventories, cannot be held uncritically. Linguists who would like to draw inferences about human language based on present-day cross-linguistic distributions must consider their theories in light of even short-term language evolution. This article is part of the theme issue 'Reconstructing prehistoric languages'.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number20200198
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1824
StatePublished - 10 May 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s).


  • language contact
  • language evolution
  • phonology


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