Researchers reconstruct major branches in the tree of language

Representative image of a branching Tree Credit: Kevin Wenning/
One can compare the diversity of human languages to branches on a tree. This is the English version of this article. It traces back a common ancestor to Scots. However, it traces back further to a distant ancestor which split into German and Dutch. Further in the tree is the European branch, which gave rise to Germanic, Celtic, Albanian and the Slavic languages, as well as Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish; Armenian and Baltic; and Hellenic Greek. About 5,000 years ago, Indo-Europeana was a major proto-language. It split into the European branch and the Indo-Iranian ancestral of modern Persian, Bengali and Hindi.

Historical linguistics has one goal: to trace the roots of modern languages back to their common ancestor. Some linguists believe that this would be the trunk of the metaphorical tree. While there have been many fascinating connections made based on systemic data comparisons between most languages around the world, much of the work has been subject to errors, dating back as far as the 1800s. Linguists still debate the internal structure and existence of larger and deeper families, such as Indo-European.

A team of researchers from the Evolution of Human Languages program uses a new technique to analyze the data and reconstruct the major branches of the linguistic tree. They recently published two papers on the Indo-European family of 5,000 years, which has been extensively studied. The Altaic macrofamily is a less well-studied branch that connects the linguistic ancestors to distant languages like Japanese, Turkish, Mongolian and Korean.

George Starostin (a Santa Fe Institute external professor, based at Moscow's Higher School of Economics) says that the more you go back in history, the less you can trust traditional methods of language comparability to find meaningful correlations. He explained that it is difficult to distinguish between words with similar meanings and sounds because they may have come from the same ancestor or because they are related because their cultures borrowed them from one another.

"We must get to the bottom layer of the language to determine its ancestry, because the outer layers are contaminated. He says they are easily corrupted through borrowings and replacements.

Starostin's team begins with a list of universal, core concepts that stem from human experience in order to tap into the core layers and core of language. This includes meanings such as "rock", "fire,""cloud,","two,"hand," and human, amongst other 110 concepts. The researchers use traditional methods of linguistic reconstruction to create a list of word shapes that they match with the specific meanings in the list. This approach, called "onomasiological reconstruct," is different from other approaches to comparative Linguistics in that it focuses more on finding words that were used to express a particular meaning in the protolanguage than on reconstructing phonetic forms of these words and associating them to a vague cloud.

Their most recent re-classifications of the Indo-European families, which apply the onomasiological principle, was published in Linguistics. It confirmed the existence of well-documented genealogies. Similar research was done on the Eurasian Altaic group of languages, whose protolanguage dates back to an estimated 8,000 year ago. It confirmed that there is a relationship among most major branches, including Mongolic, Tungusic and AltaicTurkic. It did not reproduce the previously published relationship between Korean language and other languages within the Altaic grouping. This could indicate that the criteria are too restrictive or that it is less likely that previous groups were wrong.

Researchers are attempting to reconstruct human language branches and understand their evolutionary path over time. This is similar to evolutionary biologists doing for living organisms.

Starostin states that historical reconstruction of languages has the advantage of bringing out cultural information. "Reconstructing the language's internal phylogeny is just one step in a larger process of reconstructing a large portion of its lexical stock, including its cultural vocabulary.

More information: Alexei S. Kassian and colleagues, Rapid radiation of inner Indo-European language: An advanced approach to Indo–European lexicostatistics. Linguistics (2021). Alexei S. Kassian et al, Rapid radiation of the inner Indo-European languages: an advanced approach to Indo-European lexicostatistics,(2021). DOI: 10.1515/ling-2020-0060


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