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CLT seminar: Johann-Mattis List - Computer-Assisted Language Comparison: Bridging the gap between traditional and quantitative approaches


When, in the begin of the second millennium, Gray and Atkinson (2003) used lexicostatistical data along with sophisticated statistical methods to date the age of the Indo- European language family, they caused a great stir in the linguistic world. Their method was part of a general quantitative turn in historical linguistics, which started at the begin of the second millennium. This quantitative turn is reflected in a large bunch of literature on such different topics as phonetic alignment (Kondrak 2002, Prokić et al. 2009), automatic cognate detection (Steiner et al. 2011), and phylogenetic reconstruction (Brown et al. 2008, Nelson-Sathi et al. 2011).

Unfortunately, the quantitative turn created a gap between the "new and innovative" quantitative methods and the traditional approaches which linguists have been developing since the beginning of the 19th century. Traditional historical linguists are often very skeptical of the new approaches, partly because the results are not always in concordance with those achieved by the traditional methods, partly because many of the new approaches are based on large datasets which often exhibit numerous errors. Quantitative historical linguists, on the other hand, complain about traditional historical linguists' lack of interest in the multiple opportunities which quantitative and digital approaches have to offer.

In our research project on "Quantitative Historical Linguistics" (http://quanthistling.info), which aims to uncover and clarify phylogenetic relationships between native South American languages using quantitative methods, we have been developing a set of tools which are intended to help to bridge the gap between traditional and quantitative approaches in historical linguistics. Our goal is to resolve the conflict between traditional and quantitative historical linguistics by establishing a new framework of "computer-aided historical linguistics". This framework employs interactive web-based applications to compensate with both the lack of structure in traditional and the lack of quality in quantitative historical linguistics, but also various reference data sets that can be used to train and evaluate new computational methods. In the talk, some these tools will be introduced in detail, and the challenges and opportunities of quantitative, qualitative, and computer-assisted methods will be discussed.


  • Brown, C. H., E. W. Holman, S. Wichmann, V. Velupillai, and M. Cysouw (2008). "Automated classification of the world's languages. A description of the method and preliminary results". Sprachtypologie und Universalienforschung 61.4, 285-308.
  • Gray, R. D. and Q. D. Atkinson (2003). "Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin". Nature 426.6965, 435-439.
  • Kondrak, G. (2000). "A new algorithm for the alignment of phonetic sequences". In: Proceedings of the 1st North American chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics conference (Seattle, 04/29–05/03/2000), 288-295.
  • Nelson-Sathi, S., J.-M. List, H. Geisler, H. Fangerau, R. D. Gray, W. Martin, and T. Dagan (2011). "Networks uncover hidden lexical borrowing in Indo-European language evolution". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278.1713, 1794-1803.
  • Prokić, J., M. Wieling, and J. Nerbonne (2009). "Multiple sequence alignments in linguistics". In: Proceedings of the EACL 2009 Workshop on Language Technology and Resources for Cultural Heritage, Social Sciences, Humanities, and Education. "LaTeCH-SHELT&R 2009" (Athens, 03/30/2009), 18-25.
  • Steiner, L., P. F. Stadler, and M. Cysouw (2011). "A pipeline for computational historical linguistics". Language Dynamics and Change 1.1, 89-127.

Date: 2014-10-09 10:30 - 11:30

Location: L308, Lennart Torstenssonsgatan 8


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