Quantitative methods for Phylogenetic Inference in Historical Linguistics: An experimental case study of South Central Dravidian

Taraka Rama, Sudheer Kolachina, Lakshmi Bai B

In this paper we examine the usefulness of two classes of algorithms Distance Methods, Discrete Character Methods (Felsenstein and Felsenstein 2003) widely used in genetics, for predicting the family relationships among a set of related languages and therefore, diachronic language change. Applying these algorithms to the data on the numbers of shared cognates- with-change and changed as well as unchanged cognates for a group of six languages belonging to a Dravidian language sub-family given in Krishnamurti et al. (1983), we observed that the resultant phylogenetic trees are largely in agreement with the linguistic family tree constructed using the comparative method of reconstruction with only a few minor differences. Furthermore, we studied these minor differences and found that they were cases of genuine ambiguity even for a well-trained historical linguist. We evaluated the trees obtained through our experiments using a well-defined criterion and report the results here. We finally conclude that quantitative methods like the ones we examined are quite useful in predicting family relationships among languages. In addition, we conclude that a modest degree of confidence attached to the intuition that there could indeed exist a parallelism between the processes of linguistic and genetic change is not totally misplaced.

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