I am a morphologist and phonologist, and modeller of language change and language diversity. I am particularly interested in improving the measurement of linguistic diversity, and developing powerful quantitative tools for its analysis. In my research, I see language diversity and language change as two sides of the same coin, and I work with both.
Currently I am a British Academy Global Professor (2021-24) with the Surrey Morphology Group. Previously I held positions at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (2019-20); as a British Academy Rutherford Fellow at Surrey (2018); as an Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow (2015-18); a University of Queensland Arts Faculty Research Fellow (2014); a National Science Foundation Research Associate at Yale (2009-11), and I hold a position as a linguist at the University of Queensland, Australia where I have taught and supervised in the fields of phonology, morphology, Australian languages, language typology and evolutionary linguistics since 2011.
Postgraduate research supervision
Options for securing PhD funding for outstanding candidates can always be explored. Please send me an email if you are interested in any of the areas I am researching.
Previous PhD Students
Jayden Macklin-Cordes Phonotactics in historical linguistics: Quantitative interrogation of a novel data source.
Nahyun Kwon The natural motivation of sound symbolism.
Ruihua Yin The Sonority Sequencing Principle: A Large-scale Cross-linguistic Investigation of Phonotactics
Jayden Macklin-Cordes, Claire Bowern, and Erich Round. 2021. Phylogenetic Signal in Phonotactics. Diachronica. View full publication
Functional load (FL) quantifies the contributions by phonological contrasts to distinctions made across the lexicon. Previous research has linked particularly low values of FL to sound change. Here, we broaden the scope of enquiry into FL to its evolution at higher values also. We apply phylogenetic methods to examine the diachronic evolution of FL across 90 languages of the Pama-Nyungan (PN) family of Australia. We find a high degree of phylogenetic signal in FL, indicating that FL values covary closely with genealogical structure across the family. Though phylogenetic signals have been reported for phonological structures, such as phonotactics, their detection in measures of phonological function is novel. We also find a significant, negative correlation between the FL of vowel length and of the following consonant-that is, a time-depth historical trade-off dynamic, which we relate to known allophony in modern PN languages and compensatory sound changes in their past. The findings reveal a historical dynamic, similar to transphonologization, which we characterize as a flow of contrastiveness between subsystems of the phonology. Recurring across a language family that spans a whole continent and many millennia of time depth, our findings provide one of the most compelling examples yet of Sapir's 'drift' hypothesis of non-accidental parallel development in historically related languages.
Almost universally, diachronic sound patterns of languages reveal evidence of both regular and irregular sound changes, yet an exception may be the languages of Australia. Here we discuss a long-observed and striking characteristic of diachronic sound patterns in Australian languages, namely the scarcity of evidence they present for regular sound change. Since the regularity assumption is fundamental to the comparative method, Australian languages pose an interesting challenge for linguistic theory. We examine the situation from two different angles. We identify potential explanations for the lack of evidence of regular sound change, reasoning from the nature of synchronic Australian phonologies; and we emphasise how this unusual characteristic of Australian languages may demand new methods of evaluating evidence for diachronic relatedness and new thinking about the nature of intergenerational transmission. We refer the reader also to Bowern (this volume) for additional viewpoints from which the Australian conundrum can be approached.
Abstract Phylogenetic methods have broad potential in linguistics beyond tree inference. Here, we show how a phylogenetic approach opens the possibility of gaining historical insights from entirely new kinds of linguistic data – in this instance, statistical phonotactics. We extract phonotactic data from 112 Pama-Nyungan vocabularies and apply tests for phylogenetic signal, quantifying the degree to which the data reflect phylogenetic history. We test three datasets: (1) binary variables recording the presence or absence of biphones (two-segment sequences) in a lexicon (2) frequencies of transitions between segments, and (3) frequencies of transitions between natural sound classes. Australian languages have been characterized as having a high degree of phonotactic homogeneity. Nevertheless, we detect phylogenetic signal in all datasets. Phylogenetic signal is greater in finer-grained frequency data than in binary data, and greatest in natural-class-based data. These results demonstrate the viability of employing a new source of readily extractable data in historical and comparative linguistics.
Causal processes can give rise to distinctive distributions in the linguistic variables that they affect. Consequently, a secure understanding of a variable's distribution can hold a key to understanding the forces that have causally shaped it. A storied distribution in linguistics has been Zipf's law, a kind of power law. In the wake of a major debate in the sciences around power-law hypotheses and the unreliability of earlier methods of evaluating them, here we re-evaluate the distributions claimed to characterize phoneme frequencies. We infer the fit of power laws and three alternative distributions to 166 Australian languages, using a maximum likelihood framework. We find evidence supporting earlier results, but also nuancing them and increasing our understanding of them. Most notably, phonemic inventories appear to have a Zipfian-like frequency structure among their most-frequent members (though perhaps also a lognormal structure) but a geometric (or exponential) structure among the least-frequent. We compare these new insights the kinds of causal processes that affect the evolution of phonemic inventories over time, and identify a potential account for why, despite there being an important role for phonetic substance in phonemic change, we could still expect inventories with highly diverse phonetic content to share similar distributions of phoneme frequencies. We conclude with priorities for future work in this promising program of research.
Linguistics, and typology in particular, can have a bright future. We justify this optimism by discussing comparability from two angles. First, we take the opportunity presented by this special issue of to pause for a moment and make explicit some of the logical underpinnings of typological sciences, linguistics included, which we believe are worth reminding ourselves of. Second, we give a brief illustration of comparison, and particularly measurement, within modern typology.