This website lists the schedule of the panel on historical language comparison, which is organized as part of the 33. Deutscher Orientalistentag „Asien, Afrika und Europa“, on Thursday, September 21, in Room SR 308 of the Campus of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Ernst-Abbe-Platz 8), by members of the CALC research group (Johann-Mattis List) and the DLCE (Simon Greenhill), both hosted by the Max-Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Jena). Below, you will find the preliminary schedule of the talks in this panel, along with the abstracts. Later, we will also offer the slides for download in PDF format. If you have any questions, please write an email to Johann-Mattis List.
Similar to sedimentary rock strata which witness the history of the earth, providing us with a “key to the interpretation of some mystery in the archives of remote ages” (Charles Lyell 1797-1875), linguists compare human languages spoken today in order to infer how these languages developed in the past. Techniques of historical language comparison date back to the early 19th century and have been constantly applied since then. During the last twenty years, computational techniques have been proposed to complement the classical comparative method and allow us to investigate the history of the world’s languages from the perspective of large datasets. The panel will bring together linguists specializing on classical and computational approaches to historical language comparison, focusing on language families across Africa, Asia, and Europe. The experts will introduce recent findings, long-standing problems, and future challenges in their respective fields, thus presenting the audience with a profile of the current state-of-the-art in classical and computational historical linguistics.
Schedule (Thursday, September 21, 9:00-13:00)
Time Title Speakers 09.00–09.30 Languages as keys to our past: How classical and computati onal approaches to language comparison help us to shed light on the past of our languages [PDF] Johann-Mattis List 09.30–10.00 Language phylogenies and human prehistory in South-East Asia and the Pacific [PDF] Simon Greenhill 10.00–10.30 The Indo-European Language Family: Solving a 200-Year-Old Enigma? [PDF] Paul Heggarty, Cormac Anderson 11.00–11.30 Are the correlations between the Transeurasian languages purely coincidental? Martine Robbeets 11.30–12.00 Gender Systems of Africa [PDF] Annemarie Verkerk, Francesca Di Garbo 12.00–12.30 What can language structures tell us about the history of the Transeuraisan languages? Nataliia Nescheret 12.30–13.00 The Sino-Tibetan language family: What we know, what we can know, and what we know we cannot know [PDF] Yunfan Lai, Johann-Mattis List
Abstracts of the Talks
Languages as Keys to our Past (Johann-Mattis List, MPI-SHH)
The talk will introduce general techniques of historical language comparison, starting from the foundation of historical linguistics in the beginning of the 19th century up to the recently introduced computational techniques of phylogenetic reconstruction. Chances and challenges of classical, computational, and combined approaches will be discussed, and major problems and achievements of historical language comparison of languages and language families in Africa, Asia, and Europe will be presented .
Language phylogenies and human prehistory in South-East Asia and the Pacific (Simon Greenhill, MPI-SHH)
Human prehistory in South-East Asia and the Pacific is a complex story characterized by repeated arrival and dispersal of distinct cultures throughout at the region. In this talk I will use cutting-edge computational phylogenetic methods applied to linguistic data to make inferences about the origin, timing and dispersal patterns of two of the world’s major language families and their speakers. The results will shed light on how these peoples spread throughout the region, and reveal some of the demographic and population processes that drove these expansions.
The Indo-European Language Family: Solving a 200-Year-Old Enigma? (Paul Heggarty and Cormac Anderson, MPI-SHH)
From Hindi to Icelandic, distinct cultures and populations speak languages all derived from a single, ancient source. But how, whence, and when did it spread: with the horse and pastoralism out of the Pontic Steppe, from ca 6000 BP — or with farming out of the Near East, from ca 9000 BP? This lecture surveys the latest (conflicting) signals in linguistics, archaeology and ancient DNA, and how they might at last be reconciled into a coherent Indo-European prehistory.
Are the correlations between the Transeurasian languages purely coincidental? (Martine Robbeets, MPI-SHH)
The term Transeurasian refers to a group of geographically adjacent languages in Eurasia, consisting of up to five different families: Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Koreanic and Japonic. The question whether these languages go back to a common origin is among the most disputed issues of historical comparative linguistics. Although the majority of evidence proposed for Transeurasian relatedness in the past is at least questionable, it is possible to establisha core of reliable lexical and morphological etymologies that enables us to classify the Transeurasian languages as a valid genealogical grouping. In the present paper, I will assess the possibility that these correlations can be attributed to sheer chance. For this purpose, I will revise previous methods for determining the number of comparative sets required in a binary comparison and expand them to a multiple setting, by focusing on the binary comparisons implied in the multiple sets. Arguing that the genealogical relatedness between Koreanic and Japonic, Japonic and Tungusic, Tungusic and Mongolic, and Mongolic and Turkic can be probabilistically confirmed, I logically conclude that the same is true for the Transeurasian family as a whole.
Gender Systems of Africa (Annemarie Verkerk, MPI-SHH and Francesca di Garbo, Stockholm University)
Africa is a hotbed for gender, from the extensive 20+ class systems in Bantu and other Niger-Congo branches, to the sex-based systems in Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, and Semitic (Di Garbo 2014). However, there are also language groups without gender systems (Kwa, Mande, Nilotic). In this talk, I give a wide African overview and focus specifically on the question of dynamics of gender systems, how they are acquired and maintained, how they expand and shrink, and how they may be lost altogether.
What can language structures tell us about the history of the Transeuraisan languages? (Nataliia Neshcheret, MPI-SHH)
Shared typological features as an indicator of genealogical relatedness of languages are under debate in historical linguistics. Their potential in revealing language history is tested in the current study, where a Bayesian analysis is performed on stable phonological, morphosyntactic and lexical structural features of Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, Koreanic and Japonic languages.
The Sino-Tibetan language family: What we know, what we can know, and what we know we cannot know (Yunfan Lai and Johann-Mattis List, MPI-SHH)
With more than 450 identified descendant languages and dialects, the Sino-Tibetan language family is one of the largest language families in the world. Sino-Tibetan (or Trans-Himalayanan) languages are spoken across a vast area ranging from Northeast India to South-East Asia. For historical language comparison the family is extremely challenging, and despite almost 200 years of research, many aspects of the development and the origin of the languages are still unknown. In the talk we will present the current state-of-the-art in Sino-Tibetan language comparison, providing the audience with the facts that are known with great certainty but also with those aspects that are highly disputed, scientifically challenging, or beyond the current scope of our methods.