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Genetic relationships II. David Willis. Li2 Language variation: Historical linguistics. The Wave Theory. Assumptions behind the family-tree model: homogeneous parent language sound change is regular parent language splits suddenly and cleanly into two daughter languages

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genetic relationships ii
Genetic relationships II

David Willis

Li2 Language variation:

Historical linguistics

the wave theory
The Wave Theory

Assumptions behind the family-tree model:

homogeneous parent language

sound change is regular

parent language splits suddenly and cleanly into two daughter languages

Instead we observe:

dialect continua (with recently imposed divisions into standard languages)

mixture of shared and independent innovation in neighbouring varieties

conflicting evidence for subgrouping

irregular development of creoles

the wave theory3
The Wave Theory

The satem : centum split

Another split

the wave theory example6
The Wave Theory: Example

These sound changes produce contradictory trees:

the comparative method beyond ie
The Comparative Method beyond IE

Problems with the languages of Australia

• most (> 80%) Australian languages are classified as Pama-Nyungan

• subgroupings within Pama-Nyungan have been established, but not a full family tree

• it has been argued that there is so much borrowing in Australian languages that systematic correspondences are obscured

punctuated equilibrium dixon 1997
Punctuated equilibrium (Dixon 1997)

language groups have existed for most of human history without disruption

in periods of equilibrium languages change slowly and largely by borrowing from one another, creating linguistic areas crossing genetic families

long periods of equilibrium are interspersed with short periods of punctuation (invasion, migration, new technology etc.)

splits of the type found in family trees happen only in periods of punctuation, hence the Comparative Method is applicable only to periods of punctuation

punctuation equilibrium problems
Punctuation equilibrium: Problems

convergence and split can occur simultaneously e.g. in ancient Anatolia, the non-Indo-European languages were converging with the Indo-European (Anatolian) ones, while, at the same time, the Indo-European (Anatolian) languages were splitting from one another

punctuated equilibrium justified by the claim that there are 'too few' languages (only 6500) if languages had been splitting in the manner of the Comparative Method for 100,000 years; however, this underestimates the role of language death, and ignores the huge recent population growth which has increased language diversity in the last 10,000 years

punctuated equilibrium
Punctuated equilibrium

The Comparative Method can be applied partially even to Australian languages:

punctuated equilibrium12
Punctuated equilibrium

The Comparative Method can be applied partially even to Australian languages:


Bardi and Yawuru are related (both Nyulnyulan family)

Bardi (Nyulnyulan) and Karajarri (Marrngu (Pama-Nyungan)) are not.

punctuated equilibrium13
Punctuated equilibrium

Alternative view:

Family Tree model works well for relationships between languages but not for relationships between dialects

Dialects/closely related languages form chains of mutually comprehensible varieties

This leads to conflicting subgroupings, even though the varieties are genetically related (compare problems with subgrouping in Romance or Indo-Aryan languages)

long distance reconstruction
Long-distance reconstruction

General view:

  • even under the best conditions the Comparative Method allows reconstruction only as far back as 6000–8000 years ago
  • further reconstruction is impossible because the shared set of cognates between any two related languages will have diminished so much after this time period that it will be indistinguishable from chance resemblances
  • language families may well be related beyond this time depth, but we can never demonstrate those relationships successfully

Can we do better?

long distance reconstruction nostratic
Long-distance reconstruction: Nostratic
  • claims to be using conventional Comparative Method (identifying sound correspondences and reconstructing proto-phonemes on this basis) groups together Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic [= hypothesised grouping of Semitic, Berber, Chadic, Cushitic and Ancient Egyptian], Kartvelian, Uralic, Dravidian, Altaic [= Turkic, Mongolian and Tungusic].

Example (Trask 1996: 383):

Proto-Nostratic **/k/

1. PN **küni 'wife, woman' > PIE *gwen-, Proto-Afro-Asiatic *k(w)n, *knw 'wife' woman', Proto-Turkic *küni 'one of the wives' (in polygamy)

2. PN **kälU 'female in-law' > PIE *gjlou- 'brother’s wife', Proto-Afro-Asiatic *kl(l) 'sister-in-law, bride', ?Proto-Kartvelian *kal- 'woman', Proto-Altaic *käli(n) 'wife of younger brother or son; sister’s husband'; Proto-Dravidian *kal- 'father’s brother’s wife'

3. PN **kamu 'grasp, grab, squeeze' > PIE *gem- 'grab, take, squeeze', Proto-Afro-Asiatic *km- 'grab, take, squeeze', Proto-Altaic *kamu- 'seize, grab, squeeze', Proto-Uralic *kamo- 'handful', Proto-Dravidian *kamV- 'grab, take, hold'

  • works by establishing proto-forms, then by applying the Comparative Method to the proto-languages
  • distribution of cognates is indistinguishable from chance (Ringe 1995)
long distance reconstruction mass comparison
Long-distance reconstruction: Mass comparison


collect lots of words from the languages you are interested in

look for resemblances between words

declare any languages with resemblances related

Seemed to work for African languages (Greenberg 1963), but highly controversial for Amerind (the claim that all languages of the Americas except Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Déné are related, Greenberg 1987)

long distance reconstruction mass comparison17
Long-distance reconstruction: Mass comparison

cognates are identified on the basis of phonetic similarity alone but it is highly unlikely that true cognates would be phonetically similar at the degree of separation postulated, cf. English five and its cognates French cinq, Russian pjat', Armenian hing; and English two and Armenian erk (PIE *dw > *tg- > *tk- > *rk- > erk-); or German Feuer 'fire' and French feu ‘fire’, and English day and Spanish día 'day' which are not cognates

after a certain period of time, lexical replacement will remove all cognates between two related languages, making it impossible to identify the link between them

borrowing is difficult to eliminate: even basic vocabulary items can be borrowed e.g. Finnish has borrowing tytär 'daughter' from Germanic, English has borrowed 'basic vocabulary' person, grease and mountain from French

long distance reconstruction mass comparison18
Long-distance reconstruction: Mass comparison

using large numbers of languages increases the possibility that chance is responsible for the similarities (that is, in a group of twenty languages, you are more likely to discover four with a similar word than in a group of four) but no statistical check on this is offered. Greenberg says the reverse though, which is clearly wrong:

  • there is no check on the semantic shifts allowed e.g. Greenberg's Amerind hypothesis used a group of 'cognates' with the range of meanings 'body / belly / heart / skin / meat / be greasy / fat / deer'

• there is no check on the degree of phonetic similarity permitted

  • similarities due to onomatopoeia (in words such as 'suck', 'sneeze' etc.) and nursery forms (mama, papa) are not consistently ruled out
long distance reconstruction mass comparison19
Long-distance reconstruction: Mass comparison

the role of chance is so great that any genuine similarities will inevitably be obscured, especially if the forms involved are of CVC structure and any consonant at the same point of articulation is allowed to match any other consonant at that point of articulation

in practice the evidence offered is full of elementary philological errors and the known early history of languages is ignored

morphological structure is added or eliminated at will in order to increase the plausibility of a relation e.g. Dravidian (Tamil) melku 'chew' has the morphological structure mel-ku, which decreases the proposed similarity with Indo-European milk-type words

evidence is second-hand through dictionaries: errors build up


compile a list of basic vocabulary in two or more languages you are interested in (use a Swadesh list or something similar)

use basic vocabulary:

this is most resistant to borrowing

the items can be identified in most languages

identify what proportion of the vocabulary on the list is cognate in pairs of languages

calculate the time since the languages diverged, assuming that after one thousand years, a language will have retained 81-86% of its core vocabulary


cognates are identified by inspection and not by the Comparative Method

translating vocabulary lists is not straightforward: different possible translations

semantic shifts obscure cognates:

English head

German Haupt '(metaphorical) head' German Kopf

French chef 'chief, boss' French tête

Ok to allow two cognates that have moved apart in meaning?

lexical replacement doesn't operate at a constant rate

languages don't split apart at a particular date (there is a potentially long period when they drift apart), so the final calculation is meaningless