How can Evolutionary Biology help us better understand Linguistic Relationships?

A Workshop on the uses of Phylogenetics in Linguistics

Free and Open to All!


Friday, December 14th 2012



The Whitney Humanities Center

Room 208

53 Wall Street, New Haven, CT 06511


For details, contact any of the following:

Claire Bowern

Sean Gleason

Ryan Kasak


Sponsored by Yale's Franke Program in Science and the Humanities and NSF grant #844550.


Registration is free; however, please email Sean Gleason with your interest no later than December 11, 2012, so that we make sure we have enough food.


Charles Nunn (Harvard University EEB)
Phylogenetic approaches from biology are increasingly used to investigate cultural traits, including language.  A major difference between biological and cultural systems is that cultural traits have greater potential for horizontal transmission among cultural groups.  Horizontal transmission may invalidate the use of some phylogenetic methods to study cultural variation, yet phylogenetic methods (and similar approaches) can also be used to detect horizontal transmission.  I will discuss phylogenetic comparative methods in general, and their recent applications to studying cultural trait variation.  New methods are providing ways to identify horizontal transmission and its implications.
Claire Bowern (Yale University Linguistics)
Recent advances in linguistic prehistory using computational phylogenetics
I survey recent work in Australian, Tasmanian, and Indo-European languages which uses computational phylogenetics to make inferences about the past. I review some of the theoretical assumptions regarding evolution which underlie the transfer of tools and methods from computational biology. Discussion will be based around inference of clades (subgrouping), dating, and admixture.
Erich Round,  (U. of Queensland Linguistics)
Building the lab for a Genome Project of language: Issues for data design
Biostatistical methods have dramatically increased our ability to infer the genetic history of earth’s species, and since languages also possess a genealogical past, there is a strong impetus to extend these methods from genetic to linguistic data. However, statistical methods place stringent requirements on their input data. Using a paper by Reesink, Singer & Dunn (2009) as a prompt for discussion, I identify issues which linguists will need to grapple with if we are to design datasets that meet the mathematical requirements of biostatistical methods. The questions raised begin to delimit a theory of linguistic data design for a young and expanding field of research.
Reesink, G., M. Dunn & R. Singer. 2009. Explaining the linguistic diversity of Sahul using population models. PLoS Biology 7(11): e1000241


9:30-10:00 Coffee and registration.

10:00-12:00 Charles Nunn

12:00-1:30 Lunch (to be provided)

1:30-3:00 Claire Bowern

3:00-3:30 Afternoon coffee break

3:30-5:00 Erich Round