Articles on Uralic phylogenetics

Florian Siegl florian.siegl at
Tue Nov 5 08:12:03 UTC 2013

As the authors of this project apparently want to generate discussion as 
they insisted on spreading their news on Ura-List, I take the 
opportunity to comment shortly on the Diachronica paper. Let me say in 
advance, that historical-comparative linguistics is not my main field of 
interest and this apparently won't change in the future. However, as I 
have undergone the typical historical-comparative training of the 
discipline and spent a decade in a department infamously known for 
"revolutionary and post-revolutionary approaches to Uralic linguistics" 
until the retirement of its propagator, I have a hard time understanding 
the implications...

My first open question is concerned with the nature of "phylogeny" 
propagated by these papers. Since when is language classification based 
exclusively on vocabulary and sound changes? Historically and 
theoretically, we are back in the 18th century again, perhaps with 
insights in sound changes deriving from the 20th century now reproduced 
by statistical and biological software... And then, why Swadesh?

Second, it is quite hilarious to read the following introductory 
statement: "Most Uralic research remains non-quantitative... 
(Diachronica p. 335). Some pages later however one reads that their data 
set contains a 100-item data set, a 200-item data set and a 500-word 
data set. Given that data for historical-comparative work is restricted, 
why is this new approach with 500 items any better and less 
"non-quantitative"? From the perspective of lexicography or corpus 
linguistics, 500 tokens is indeed "non-quantitative".

Third, it is quite astonishing to see that output of researchers with a 
clear "revolutionary connotation" (Künnap & Taagepera 2004; Tambovtsev 
2004) are even considered in such a paper. Apparently, the international 
reviewers have been unaware what happened in the discipline in the late 
1990s and the first years of the new millennium and can't tell solid 
scholarship from less solid. And by the way, so did the authors of this 
joint paper and their "linguistic" advisers for whom quite some space is 

Summing up the Diachronica paper, one sees a "scientific" reproduction 
of a number of "scholarly assembled facts" equaling earlier scholarship 
which was accused of having been based on a "non-quantitative sample". 
After all, it is nice to see that "scholarly work" can indeed compete 
with a biological software data set analysis and one may be tempted to 
say that "scholarly work is indeed rather scientific". Of course, the 
Diachronica paper is an instance of that kind of "science" generally 
appreciated as "hard science" as the paper tests predictions based on a 
sampled data set and shows different models based on different analysis. 
But clearly, this paper does not show anything amazingly new; it 
"scientifically" reproduces data which has been assembled scholarly and 
comes to solutions which are not too diverging. So, all we got is "quod 
erum demonstrandum" now supported by software desgined by humans?

Finally, let me come back to my opening statement -- in order to make 
such research interesting for a community of "scholars" (that's how we 
are called by "scientists"), another central component of 
historical-comparative linguistics needs to be integrated -- historical 
grammar. After all, genetic classification needs both lexicon and 
grammar. But then, historical grammar is messy, there is more analogy, 
leveling etc which blurs the nice and clear cut lexicon and sound change 
picture. I wonder if this can be modeled and combined with the study one 
eagerly wanted to share with the community. Such a paper might indeed 
hold some surprises and would produce something new for the 21^st 
century. As long as "phylogeny" is limited to vocabulary and sound 
change, the picture is incomplete and partial, even if it can be tested 
"scientifically". After all, the genetic unity of Uralic (and any other 
language family) is indeed more than vocabulary and sound change...

Florian Siegl

On 4.11.2013 18:13, Johanna Laakso wrote:
> Dear All,
> Outi Vesakoski of the BEDLAN project ( ) 
> wanted to share these papers of their project with the URA-LIST community!
> Best
> JL
> --
> Univ.Prof. Dr. Johanna Laakso
> Universität Wien, Institut für Europäische und Vergleichende Sprach- 
> und Literaturwissenschaft (EVSL)
> Abteilung Finno-Ugristik
> Campus AAKH Spitalgasse 2-4 Hof 7
> A-1090 Wien
> johanna.laakso at <mailto:johanna.laakso at> . 
> Project ELDIA:
> Välitetty viesti alkaa:
>> *Lähettäjä: *Outi Vesakoski <outves at <mailto:outves at>>
>> *Aihe: **uralilaista fylogenetiikkaa*
>> *Päivämäärä: *4. marraskuuta 2013 15.56.30 UTC+1.00
>> *Vastaanottaja: *Johanna Laakso <johanna.laakso at 
>> <mailto:johanna.laakso at>>
>> Hei.
>> Olisiko mielestäsi mahdollista ja asiallista laittaa oheiset 
>> artikkelit ura-listalle jakoon? Se voisi olla hyvä tapa saada kiinni 
>> varsin tärkeä osa juttujen lukijakuntaa! Kaikki eivät välttämättä 
>> pääse ainakaan Journal of Evolutionary Biologyyn, jos vaikka 
>> Diachronica olisikin kaikkien saatavilla.
>> En muista, että saanko itse kirjoittaa listalle ja laittaa liitteitä, 
>> mutta joka tapauksessa haluan ekaksi kysyä sinulta. Samalla tulen 
>> lähettäneeksi molemmat artikkelit suoraan sinullekin (tosin voi olla, 
>> että lähetin Terhin työn jo aikaisemminkin.)
>> T. Outi Vesakoski

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