Statistical methods fashionable again in Linguistics: Reconstructing Proto-Australian dialects

Reconstructing remote relationships – Proto-Australian noun class prefixation, by Mark Harvey & Robert Mailhammer, Diachronica (2017) 34(4): 470–515

Abstract:

Evaluation of hypotheses on genetic relationships depends on two factors: database size and criteria on correspondence quality. For hypotheses on remote relationships, databases are often small. Therefore, detailed consideration of criteria on correspondence quality is important. Hypotheses on remote relationships commonly involve greater geographical and temporal ranges. Consequently, we propose that there are two factors which are likely to play a greater role in comparing hypotheses of chance, contact and inheritance for remote relationships: (i) spatial distribution of corresponding forms; and (ii) language specific unpredictability in related paradigms. Concentrated spatial distributions disfavour hypotheses of chance, and discontinuous distributions disfavour contact hypotheses, whereas hypotheses of inheritance may accommodate both. Higher levels of language-specific unpredictability favour remote over recent transmission. We consider a remote relationship hypothesis, the Proto-Australian hypothesis. We take noun class prefixation as a test dataset for evaluating this hypothesis against these two criteria, and we show that inheritance is favoured over chance and contact.

I was redirected to this work by my wife – who discovered it reading BBC News – , suspicious of its potential glottochronological content. However, I must say – speaking from my absolute ignorance of the main language family investigated – , that it seemed in general an interesting read, with some thorough discussion and attention to detail.

The statistical analyses, however, seem to disrupt the content, and – in my opinion – do not help support its conclusions.

non-pama-nyungan-languages
Map of Non-Pama-Nyungan languages.

Computer Science and Linguistics

We are evidently on alert to tackle dubious research, because of the revival of pseudoscientific methods in linguistic investigation, promoted (yet again) by Nature.

It seems that journals with the highest impact factor, in their search for groundbreaking conclusions supported by any methods involving numbers, are setting a still lower level of standards for academic disciplines.

NOTE. If you think about it – if glottochronology has survived the disgrace it fell into in the 2000s, to come back again now to the top of the publishing industry… How can we expect the “Yamnaya ancestry” concept to be overcome? I guess we will still see certain Eastern Europeans in 2030 arguing for elevated steppe ancestry here and there to support the conclusions of the 2015 papers, no matter what…

I am sure that worse times lie ahead for traditional comparative grammar. For example, it seems that there will be more publications on Proto-Indo-European using novel computer methods: a group led by Janhunen and Pyysalo, from the Department of Languages at the University of Helsinki, promises – under an ever-growing bubble of mistery (or so it seems from their Twitter and Facebook accounts) – a machine-implemented reconstruction (with the generative etymological PIE lexicon project) that will once and for all solve all our previous ‘inconsistencies’…

Spoiler alert for their publications: whether they select to go on mainly with computer-implemented methods, or they use them to support more traditional results, their conclusions will confirm (surprise!) their authors’ previous reactionary theses, such as a renewed support for the traditional monolaryngealism, and a rejection of Kortlandt’s or Kloekhorst’s (i.e. the Leiden School’s) theories on Proto-Indo-European phonology, and thus a PIE relationship to Proto-Uralic, probably stressing yet again an independent origin for both proto-languages.

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The origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia

Yet another questionable paper by Nature, The origin and expansion of Pama–Nyungan languages across Australia, by Bouckaert, Bowern & Atkinson, Nat Ecol Evol (2018).

Abstract:

It remains a mystery how Pama–Nyungan, the world’s largest hunter-gatherer language family, came to dominate the Australian continent. Some argue that social or technological advantages allowed rapid language replacement from the Gulf Plains region during the mid-Holocene. Others have proposed expansions from refugia linked to climatic changes after the last ice age or, more controversially, during the initial colonization of Australia. Here, we combine basic vocabulary data from 306 Pama–Nyungan languages with Bayesian phylogeographic methods to explicitly model the expansion of the family across Australia and test between these origin scenarios. We find strong and robust support for a Pama–Nyungan origin in the Gulf Plains region during the mid-Holocene, implying rapid replacement of non-Pama–Nyungan languages. Concomitant changes in the archaeological record, together with a lack of strong genetic evidence for Holocene population expansion, suggests that Pama–Nyungan languages were carried as part of an expanding package of cultural innovations that probably facilitated the absorption and assimilation of existing hunter-gatherer groups.

pama-nyungan-language-family
“Diversification of the Pama–Nyungan language family. Maximum clade credibility tree showing the inferred timing and emergence of the major branches and their subsequent diversification.”

Even with my absolute lack of knowledge on Australian languages, I am not conviced. Not at all.

I have already expressed more than once my opinion on Glottochronology – and the improved method of this paper seems like the final twist of the screw for its strongest proponents.

Interestingly, this paper includes the same journal, author, and (mostly) method of the famous Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin (2003).

And we have also seen how most suggested prehistorical cultural diffusion events were actually migrations, so it seems rather odd to dare publish this right now.

At a time of groundbreaking genomic papers being published on South-East Asian migrations, and probably expecting more on the region – including Australia – , this paper seems to me quite unnecessary.

It will especially not help Nature make forget its latest fiasco on Indo-European migrations.

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