About Historical and Areal Linguistics

Historical and areal linguistics — the study of language across time and space — is a research focus for many Berkeley faculty and students, in Linguistics and in allied programs (especially Anthropology, Computer Science, French, German, Slavic, and Spanish & Portuguese). This focus continues a long Berkeley tradition: language was a key component of A. L. Kroeber's research on "cultural areas" (Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America, 1939); Murray B. Emeneau's "India as a linguistic area" (1956) laid the foundation for the study of language areas in American linguistics; and Johanna Nichols's Linguistic Diversity in Time and Space (1992) moved the field into a new era by bringing together areal linguistics, linguistic typology, and quantitative methods. Today, Berkeley linguists deploy a range of methodologies to investigate language change, diversification and geographical diffusion, and areal dynamics:

  • archival and philological methods, to understand languages and speech varieties documented over the course of human history; 
  • computational methods, to model language phylogenies, areal distributions, and patterns of change;
  • experimental methods, to understand the roots and mechanisms of sound change in speech and interaction;
  • fieldwork, to document under-researched language areas and under-studied linguistic phenomena; and
  • typological analysis, to evaluate the distribution and frequency of linguistic patterns (globally and in specific areas). 

This field also draws on evidence from archaeology, history, and human genetics in reconstructing the history and prehistory of people and their languages.

Current Berkeley Linguistics faculty and students with arealist and historical interests focus on the following areas:

  • Africa: Matthew Faytak, Florian Lionnet, Larry M. Hyman, John T. M. Merrill, Nicholas Rolle, Hannah Sande
  • Amazonia: Christine Beier, Emily Clem, Lev Michael, Zachary O'Hagan, Amalia Horan Skilton
  • East and Southeast Asia: Kenneth Baclawski Jr., Peter Jenks, Tyler Lau, James A. Matisoff
  • Indo-European: Will Chang, Andrew Garrett, Gary B. Holland, Johanna Nichols, Eve Sweetser
  • Mesoamerica: Erin Donnelly, Richard A. Rhodes, Ruth Rouvier
  • North America: Andrew Garrett, Leanne Hinton, Jonathan Manker, Richard A. Rhodes, Clare Sandy

Recent PhD dissertations in this area have investigated patterns of change in Pacific Coast AthabaskanMandarin ChineseGascon, and New World Low German; areality, diversification, and dialect differentiation in IranianNative California, and South-Halmahera-West New Guinea Austronesian; linguistic reconstruction of Ersuic and Central Naga; and the evolution of sound change and nonconcatenative morphology.