The Uniformitarian Principle in linguistics

Don Ringe, spring 2012


A standard statement of the Uniformitarian Principle (back to top)

The Uniformitarian Principle (UP) in linguistics is the application of a key principle of science - uniformitarianism - in linguistics. As applied in linguistics, it states that unless we can demonstrate that the conditions of language acquisition or use have changed between some time in the past and the observable present, we have to assume that the same types, range, and distribution of linguistic structures and linguistic changes occurred at that time in the past as we can observe in the present.

What the UP means (back to top)

If language was normally acquired in the past in the same way as it is today - usually by native acquisition in early childhood - and if it was used in the same ways - to transmit information, to express solidarity with family, friends, and neighbors, to mark one's social position, etc. - then it must have had the same general structure and organization in the past as it does today, and it must have changed in the same ways as it does today.

Some examples:

What the UP does not mean (back to top)

Some reasonable paraphrases (back to top)