Cladistic methods in linguistics and Dollo’s Law


  • Lukas Reinarz Radboud University Nijmegen


Cladistic methods used for making phylogenetic family trees of biological species are an important tool in evolutionary biology and linguistics. They are based on the assumption that a group of species sharing the same genetic features (genotypes) must have evolved from the same common ancestor and that such features cannot come back once vanished. However, language change can be cyclic and a law in evolutionary biology, Dollo’s law, states that only features that are not genetically coded (phenotypes) can evolve in a cyclic way. Since linguistic features are phenotypic, cladistic methods used in linguistics are not reliable.


Aikhenvald, A. Y. (2002). Language contact in Amazonia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brinkman, F. S. & Leipe, D. D. (2001). Phylogenetic analysis. Bioinformatics: a practical guide to the analysis of genes and proteins , 323-358.

Cabral, A. S. A. C. (2003). Contact-induced language change in the western Amazon: The non-genetic origin of the Kokama language (Academic dissertation). UMI, Ann Arbor.

Dollo, L. (1893). The laws of evolution. Bulletin de la Société Belge de Géologie, de Paléontologie etd’Hydrologie, 7, 164-166.

Drake, G. F. (1977). Evolutionary linguistics. Annual Review of Anthropology, 37(1), 219-234.

Dunn, M. (2014). Language phylogenies. In C. Bowern & B. Evans (red.), The Routledge handbookof historical linguistics (pp. 190-211). New York:Routledge.

Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Levinson, S. C. & Gray, R. D. (2011). Evolved structure of language shows lineage specific trends in word order universals. Nature, 473(7345), 79-82.

Gelderen, E. van (2009). Cyclical Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Gelderen, E. van (to appear). The dependent marking cycles: Case. In Elly van Gelderen (ed.), Linguistic cycles.

Gould, S. J. (1970). Dollo on Dollo’s law: irreversibility and the status of evolutionary laws. Journal of the History of Biology, 3(2), 198-212.

Heine, B. & Kuteva, T. (2005). Language contact and grammatical change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jespersen, O. (1917). Negation in English and other languages. Høst & Søn.

Lee, J. R. (1987). Tiwi today: a study of language change in a contact situation. Canberra: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.

Lipscomb, D. (1998). Basics of cladistic analysis. George Washington University.

Miestamo, M., Sinnemäki, K. & Karlsson, F. (2008). Language complexity: Typology, contact, change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.

Platnick, N. I. & Cameron, H. D. (1977). Cladistic methods in textual, linguistic, and phylogenetic analysis. Systematic Biology, 26(4), 380-385.

Silva-Corvalán, C. (1994). Language Contact and Change: Spanish in Los Angeles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thomason, S. G. (2001). Language contact. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.






Economics & Social Sciences