Wave model

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the concept of wave in historical linguistics. For other uses, see Wave model (disambiguation).
Diagram based on the Wave model originally presented by Johannes Schmidt. In this Euler diagram, the circles are to be regarded as diachronic; that is, they increase in diameter over time, like the concentric waves on a water surface struck by a stone. The background represents a dialect continuum of no language boundaries. The circles are stable dialects, characters or bundles of characters that have been innovated and have become more stable over an originally small portion of the continuum for socio-political reasons. These circles spread from their small centers of maximum effectiveness like waves, becoming less effective[clarification needed] and then dissipating at maximum time and distance from the center. Languages are to be regarded as impermanent sets of speech habits that result from and prevail in the intersections of the circles. The most conservative language is represented by the area not covered by the circles.

In historical linguistics, the wave model or wave theory (German Wellentheorie) is a model of language change in which a new language feature (innovation) or a new combination of language features spreads from a central region of origin in continuously weakening concentric circles, similar to the waves created when a stone is thrown into a body of water. The theory was intended as a substitute for the tree model, which did not seem to be able to explain the existence of some characters, especially in the Germanic languages, by descent from a Proto-language. At its most ambitious, it is a wholesale replacement for the tree model of languages, and indeed rejects the notion of distinct languages per se. The wave model has little acceptance as a model for language change overall – distinct languages are widely accepted – but has use in certain cases, namely for dialect continua and for studying areal features.

The tree model requires definite, stable languages, exactly what was denied by the Wave Model; if there are no permanent languages, then they cannot evolve as a tree. Conversely, the Wave Model regards languages as impermanent collections of features at the intersections of multiple circles. What really exists are dialect continua. Johannes Schmidt used a second metaphor to explain the formation of an impermanent language from a continuum. The continuum is at first like a smooth, sloping line. Speakers in close proximity tend to unify their speech, creating a stepped line out of the sloped line. These steps are the dialects. Over the course of time some steps become weak and fall into disuse, while others preempt the entire continuum. As example Schmidt used Standard German, which was defined to conform to some dialects and then spread throughout Germany, replacing the local dialects in many cases.


Despite their intent, the wave theorists did not manage to overthrow the Tree Model. Instead it has only been invoked[by whom?] to complement the Tree Model in cases where the latter cannot explain some features. The basic Tree Model has remained unusually effective[clarification needed] and resilient. In modern linguistics, the wave model has contributed greatly to improve the tree model approach of the comparative method.[1] Most recently this has been through the notion of a linkage (1988), where a proto-language breaks into a dialect continuum that are in contact with each other, rather than a family of isolated languages.

History of the model[edit]

Advocacy of the wave theory is attributed to Johannes Schmidt and Hugo Schuchardt.

In 2002-2007, Malcolm Ross and his colleagues theorized that Oceanic languages can be best understood as developing through the wave model.[2][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Labov, William (2007). "Transmission and diffusion". Language 83: 344–387. doi:10.1353/lan.2007.0082. 
  2. ^ Lynch, John; Malcolm Ross; Terry Crowley (2002). The Oceanic languages. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. ISBN 978-0-7007-1128-4. OCLC 48929366. 
  3. ^ Ross, Malcolm and Åshild Næss (2007). "An Oceanic Origin for Äiwoo, the Language of the Reef Islands?". Oceanic Linguistics 46: 456–498. doi:10.1353/ol.2008.0003.