This book "asserts that the origin and spread of languages must be examined primarily through the time-tested techniques of linguistic analysis, rather than those of evolutionary biology" and "defends traditional practices in historical linguistics while remaining open to new techniques, including computational methods" and "will appeal to readers interested in world history and world geography."
Elly van Gelderen provides examples of linguistic cycles from a number of languages and language families, along with an account of the linguistic cycle in terms of minimalist economy principles. A cycle involves grammaticalization from lexical to functional category followed by renewal. Some well-known cycles involve negatives, where full negative phrases are reanalyzed as words and affixes and are then renewed by full phrases again. Verbal agreement is another example: full pronouns are reanalyzed as agreement markers and are renewed again. Each chapter provides data on a separate cycle from a myriad of languages. Van Gelderen argues that the cross-linguistic similarities can be seen as Economy Principles present in the initial cognitive system or Universal Grammar. She further claims that some of the cycles can be used to classify a language as analytic or synthetic, and she provides insight into the shape of the earliest human language and how it evolved.