Biological metaphors and methods in historical linguistics (1): Introduction

Evolutionary biology and historical linguistics share a long history of scientific exchange, reflected both not only in the sharing and transfer of metaphors but more recently also in the transfer of methods. Already Charles Darwin claimed that both species and languages evolve in tree-like patterns, and linguists, like Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke, used terms like “sprachliche[n] Biologie” (‘linguistic biology’) when referring to the history of languages (Meyer-Lübke 1890, x). While the discipline of historical-comparative linguistics allowed biologists to adopt evolutionary thought against religious dogma in the late 19th century (Wells 1987: 54), it was biological applications which opened up the possibility of large quantitative studies in linguistics based on computational approaches (Geisler and List 2013, 111).

Many articles and essays have been written listing possible similarities between the disciplines (for recent ones see for example Pagel 2016 or List et al. 2016). Yet biology is considered a natural science, while linguistics is thought to belong to the humanities. One could even say that their research objects belong to two different worlds, the objective universe, on the one hand, and the world of the products of the subjective mind, on the other hand (Geisler and List 2013: 121). Therefore, one may rightfully ask what it is that makes the exchange of ideas so fruitful.

Both disciplines deal with historical processes and can therefore be seen as belonging to the wider field of historical sciences which are dealing with the past and how it lead to the present by “analyz[ing] persistence with modification of systems (‘descent with modification’)” (Stevick 1963, 160). In other words, they describe and reconstruct earlier stages of their research objects, proposing ancestral character states in biology or proto-forms in linguistics (Atkinson and Gray 2005, 519), or investigate earlier stages directly, where they are still attested as fossils or in form of manuscripts and inscriptions (ibid: 514). Additionally, both disciplines propose theories that seek to explain the transmission of their research objects, be it vertical (in form of inheritance) or horizontal (in form of direct exchange).

Change in linguistics and biology can be studied from different perspectives. One can restrict oneself to study only one language or species at the same time, investigating its internal history from its oldest attestations to the present, or one can compare several languages or species, which form a family, and investigate how they separated and interacted after separation.

In addition, one can also carry out a general comparison of languages and species in order to find the general laws and tendencies by which they change, which is part of the typologogical approach in linguistics. Both fields are thus based on the assumption that all languages and species change through time. Already August Schleicher stated that “Sprachen sich verändern so lange sie leben” (Schleicher 1863: 18, ‘Languages change as long as they are alive’). There is some debate among scholars as to whether the principles of change might also change with time or whether they remain constant.

Considering these similarities, but also the obvious differences between the fields, looking at historical linguistics against the contrast of evolutionary biology is of particular benefit when modeling language history as it forces one to be explicit about one’s assumptions. This inspired us to start a series of blogposts on comparisons between biology and linguistics. In future posts we will describe in more detail which correspondences and differences there are between the research objects of biology and linguistics and what needs to be taken into account when using methods from evolutionary biology to tackle problems in historical linguistics.


Atkinson, Quentin D., and Russell D. Gray. 2005. “Curious Parallels and Curious Connections: Phylogenetic Thinking in Biology and Historical Linguistics.” Systematic Biology 54 (4): 513–26.

Geisler, H., and J.-M. List. 2013. “Do Languages Grow on Trees? The Tree Metaphor in the History of Linguistics.” In Classification and Evolution in Biology, Linguistics and the History of Science. Concepts – Methods – Visualization, edited by Heiner Fangerau, Hans Geisler, Thorsten Halling, and William Martin, 111–24. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

Gray, Russell D., Simon J. Greenhill, and Malcolm D. Ross. 2007. “The Pleasures and Perils of Darwinzing Culture (with Phylogenies).” Biological Theory 2 (4): 360–75.

List, Johann-Mattis, Jananan Sylvestre Pathmanathan, Philippe Lopez, and Eric Bapteste. 2016. “Unity and Disunity in Evolutionary Sciences: Process-Based Analogies Open Common Research Avenues for Biology and Linguistics.” Biology Direct, nos. 39, 11: 1–17.

Meyer-Lübke, Wilhelm. 1890. Italienische Grammatik. Leipzig: Verlag von O. R. Reisland.

Pagel, Mark. 2016. “Darwinian Perspectives on the Evolution of Human Languages.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1–7.

Schleicher, August. 1863. Die darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft. Weimar: Hermann Böhlau.

Stevick, Robert D. 1963. “The Biological Model and Historical Linguistics.” Language, nos. 2, 39: 159–69.

Wells, Rulon S. 1987. “The Life and Growth of Language: Metaphors in Biology and Linguistics.” In Biological Metaphor and Cladistic Classification: An Interdisciplinary Perspective; [Papers from Symposium on Biological Metaphor Outside Biology (1982.03.04-05, Philadelphia) Interdisciplinary Round-Table on Cladistics and Other Graph Theoretical Representations (1983.04.28-29, Philadelphia)], edited by Henry Max Hoenigswald, 39–80. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Pr.

Cite this blog post
Nathanael E. Schweikhard (2019, May 15). Biological metaphors and methods in historical linguistics (1): Introduction. Computer-Assisted Language Comparison in Practice. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

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