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Wave model

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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 its region of origin, being adopted by a gradually expanding cluster of dialects. Each innovation starts at a certain place, and spreads from speaker to speaker, from dialect to dialect, in the same fashion as waves on the water.[1][2]

The theory was intended as a substitute for the tree model, which did not seem to be able to explain the existence of some features, 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.[2] During the 20th century, the wave model had little acceptance as a model for language change overall, except for certain cases, such as the study of dialect continua and areal phenomena; it has recently gained more popularity among historical linguists, due to the shortcomings of the tree model.[2][3]


The tree model requires languages to evolve exclusively through social splitting and linguistic divergence. In the “tree” scenario, the adoption of certain innovations by a group of dialects should result immediately in their loss of contact with other related dialects: this is the only way to explain the nested organisation of subgroups imposed by the tree structure.

Such a requirement is absent from the Wave Model, which can easily accommodate a distribution of innovations in intersected patterns. Such a configuration is typical of dialect continua (and of linkages, see below), that is, historical situations in which dialects share innovations with different neighbours simultaneously, in such a way that the genealogical subgroups they define form an intersected pattern. This explains the popularity of the Wave model in studies of dialectology.[1]

Johannes Schmidt used a second metaphor to explain the formation of a 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 an 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.


In modern linguistics, the wave model has contributed greatly to improve, but not supersede, the tree model approach of the comparative method.[4] Some scholars have even proposed that the wave model does not complement the tree model but should replace it for the representation of language genealogy.[2] The recent works have also focused on the notion of a linkage,[5] a family of languages descended from a former dialect continuum; linkages cannot be represented by trees and must be analysed by the wave model.


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

In 2002 to 2007, Malcolm Ross and his colleagues theorized that Oceanic languages can be best understood as developing through the wave model.[6][7]


The Wave model provided the key inspiration to several approaches in linguistics, notably:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wolfram, Walt; Schilling-Estes, Natalie (2003), "Dialectology and Linguistic Diffusion" (PDF), in Joseph, Brian D.; Janda, Richard D. (eds.), The Handbook of Historical Linguistics, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 713–735.
  2. ^ a b c d François, Alexandre (2014), "Trees, Waves and Linkages: Models of Language Diversification" (PDF), in Bowern, Claire; Evans, Bethwyn (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics, London: Routledge, pp. 161–189, ISBN 978-0-41552-789-7.
  3. ^ Heggarty, Paul; Maguire, Warren; McMahon, April (2010). "Splits or waves? Trees or webs? How divergence measures and network analysis can unravel language histories". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 365 (1559): 3829–3843. doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0099. PMC 2981917. PMID 21041208..
  4. ^ Labov, William (2007). "Transmission and diffusion". Language. 83 (2): 344–387. CiteSeerX doi:10.1353/lan.2007.0082. S2CID 6255506.
  5. ^ "I use the term linkage to refer to a group of communalects [i.e. dialects or languages] which have arisen by dialect differentiation" Ross, Malcolm D. (1988). Proto Oceanic and the Austronesian languages of Western Melanesia. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. p. 8.
  6. ^ Lynch, John; Malcolm Ross; Terry Crowley (2002). The Oceanic languages. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. ISBN 978-0-7007-1128-4. OCLC 48929366.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  7. ^ Ross, Malcolm and Åshild Næss (2007). "An Oceanic origin for Äiwoo, the language of the Reef Islands?". Oceanic Linguistics. 46 (2): 456–498. doi:10.1353/ol.2008.0003. hdl:1885/20053. S2CID 143716078.