York continues to be a major centre for an approach to historical syntax rooted in the interpretation of variation in historical texts. 

Recently our work has introduced the role of information structure into accounts of aspects of the development of English, and of variation within a single time period. Reference to information structure properties has been made possible through the development of our corpora: electronic databases in which historical texts are annotated with syntactic and morphological information, so that sets of relevant examples can be rapidly and accurately retrieved, and variation tracked in detail across time.

In the area of language change, beyond English, we have research strength in the investigation of global syntactic diversity, based on a parametric approach to grammatical description. We also investigate language diversity from a synchronic perspective in recently-completed and current projects.


Longobardi, G., Ghirotto, S., Guardiano, C., Tassi, F., Benazzo, A., Ceolin, A. & Barbujani, G. 2015. Across language families: DNA diversity mirrors linguistic variation within Europe. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 157, 630–640.

Mapping the world’s linguistic diversity: this study, led by Giuseppe Longobardi, showed that language proves a better predictor of genetic differences than the geographical distribution of population. As part of his study he observed significant correlations between genetic and linguistic diversity across the Indo-European and non-Indo-European-speaking populations of Europe.

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Giuseppe Longobardi, Cristina Guardiano, Andrea Ceolin, Monica-Alexandrina Irimia. 2021. At the boundaries of Syntactic Prehistory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 376: 20200197.

Can language relatedness be established without cognate words? This question has remained unresolved since the nineteenth century, leaving language prehistory beyond etymologically established families largely undefined. We address this problem through a theory of universal syntactic characters. We show that not only does syntax allow for comparison across distinct traditional language families, but that the probability of deeper historical relatedness between such families can be statistically tested through a dedicated algorithm which implements the concept of ‘possible languages’ suggested by a formal syntactic theory. Controversial clusters such as e.g. Altaic and Uralo-Altaic are significantly supported by our test, while other possible macro-groupings, e.g. Indo-Uralic or Basque-(Northeast) Caucasian, prove to be indistinguishable from a randomly generated distribution of language distances. These results suggest that syntactic diversity, modelled through a generative biolinguistic framework, can be used to provide a proof of historical relationship between different families irrespectively of the presence of a common lexicon from which regular sound correspondences can be determined; therefore, we argue that syntax may expand the time limits imposed by the classical comparative method.

Matthew Baerman, Dunstan Brown, Greville G. Corbett

Inflectional morphology plays a paradoxical role in language. On the one hand it tells us useful things, for example that a noun is plural or a verb is in the past tense. Yet it may also come across as a gratuitous over-elaboration –especially when morphological structures operate at cross purposes to the general systems of meaning and function that govern a language, yielding inflection classes and arbitrarily configured paradigms. This is what we call morphological complexity. Manipulating the forms of words requires learning a whole new system of structures and relationships.

This book confronts the typological challenge of characterising the wildly diverse sorts of morphological complexity we find in the languages of the world.

Read Morphological Complexity