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ANU-CoEDL ZOOM Seminar: Are patterns of syncretism diagnostic of relationships between languages?, Kyla Quinn, 9 Oct

Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 18 August 2020

Seminar: Are patterns of syncretism diagnostic of relationships between languages? Two case studies, two different answers and some issues in the computational analysis of pronominal paradigms.

Speaker: Kyla Quinn

When: 9 Oct 2020, 3pm

Where: via zoom (please email for zoom link invitation)


For centuries, historical linguists have meticulously pieced together the lexicon and sounds of the world’s languages using the comparative method. However, in some regions of the world, this approach is hampered by a lack of identifiable cognates and regular sound changes (Reesink, Singer, & Dunn, 2009). Cysouw and Forker (2009) in their ground-breaking of study of case markers in Tsezic provided evidence that typological features can be reconstructed across a language family and can be used for comparative and phylogenetic analysis. This study focussed on the rather unusually structured case systems of Tsezic which do not have equivalents cross-linguistically.

In this seminar I explore two case studies, the first examines the languages of Cape York, the Torres Strait and the Fly River Estuary. A phylogenetic approach is used to examine how contact in the Torres Strait may have influenced the structure of these paradigms. The peoples of Cape York, the Torres Strait islands and Southern New Guinea had thriving trade networks that consisted of series of indirect trades to move goods from the Fly River estuary to Cape York and back.  There were several trade centres within this network, providing an environment for sustained language contact between the Papuan and Australian languages of the region.

The second case study examines a subset of Indo-European languages, using the same methodology.  Through this case study I explore some of the issues with the current phylogenetic approach.  Paradigms reflect a range of different language evolution phenomena - phonetic, morphological and syntactic changes are all apparent within them. Each of these changes displays differing rates of change and different resultant structures.

Both case studies provide clues as to why current phylogenetic analysis techniques cannot be applied without modification to paradigmatic data. Current techniques of phylogenetic analysis generally rely upon judgements made by linguists to determine if words are cognates or structures meet strict criteria, whereas the input data for Parabank simply present comparable patterns without specifying what forms are involved. I argue that using insight gained from Natural Language Processing techniques we can make advances towards using computational phylogenetic techniques more successfully on structural data.


Cysouw, M., & Forker, D. (2009). Reconstruction of morphosyntactic function: Nonspatial usage of spatial case marking in Tsezic. Language, 85(3), 588-617.

Reesink, G., Singer, R., & Dunn, M. T. (2009). Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models. PLoS Biol, 7(11).

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