Is it possible to verify the genetic taxa of world languages by typological methods?

Søren Wichmann wichmann at EVA.MPG.DE
Sun Dec 20 19:07:52 UTC 2009

The paper in Language by Dunn et al. isn't very different from their 
earlier paper in Science. The authors claim there that typological 
features can somehow take us further back in time than the comparative 
method, which is highly doubtful. Their 2005 paper was criticized by 
Donohue and Musgrave (2007), to which Dunn et al. replied in the same 
year, and Donohue et al. (2008) is then a reply to the reply. Finally, 
Donohue (2009) again makes the point that the high diffusibility of 
typological features make their distribution more prone to correlate 
with geography than with linguistic phylogenies.



Dunn, Michael, Angela Terrill, Ger Reesink, Robert A. Foley, and Stephen 
C. Levinson. 2005. Structural phylogenetics and the reconstruction of 
ancient language history. Science 309: 2072–2075.

Donohue, Mark and Simon Musgrave. 2007. Typology and the linguistic 
macrohistory of Island Melanesia. Oceanic Linguistics 46 (2): 325–364.

Dunn, Michael, Robert Foley, Stephen Levinson, Ger Reesink, and Angela 
Terrill. 2007. Statistical reasoning in the evaluation of typological 
diversity in Island Melanesia. Oceanic Linguistics 46 (2): 388–403.

Donohue, Mark, Søren Wichmann, and Mihai Albu. 2008. Typology, areality 
and diffusion. Oceanic Linguistics 47 (1): 223–232.

Donohue, Mark. 2009. Geography is more robust than linguistics. Science 
324: 464-c-465-c.

Siva Kalyan wrote:
> Perhaps also relevant is the recent work by Dunn et al.:
> Dunn, M, S C Levinson, E Lindström, G Reesink, and A Terrill, 
> "Structural Phylogeny in Historical Linguistics: Methodological 
> Explorations Applied in Island Melanesia." Language 84, no. 4 (2008): 
> 710-759.
> This would give a quantitative answer. Again, the answer seems to be yes.
> Siva
> 2009/12/20 Søren Wichmann <wichmann at <mailto:wichmann at>>
>     This paper gives a qualitative answer
>     Polyakov, Vladimir N., Valery D. Solovyev, Søren Wichmann, and Oleg
>     Belyaev. 2009. Using WALS and Jazyki Mira. Linguistic Typology 13:
>     135-165.
>     There is a prepublication version here:
>     The short answer is: yes, languages can be genealogically classified
>     by means of typological data, but it takes a lot of such data to get
>     an accurate classification.
>     Søren.
>     Yuri Tambovtsev wrote:
>         Dear colleagues in the field of typology, I wonder if it is
>         possible to verify the genetic taxa of world languages by
>         typological methods? For instance, let us take Finno-Ugric
>         language family and analyse it with the help of the total of the
>         distances between its members and then compare this total to the
>         total distance between the Turkic language family. If
>         Finno-Ugric distance total is greater then that of the Turkic
>         one, it means that Finno-Ugric languages are less similar to
>         each other than the Turkic languages. We took nine phonetic
>         features and found out that Turkic language family has a smaller
>         distance total. Thus, we can say that it is more compact on the
>         phonetic level. It means that Turkic languages are more similar
>         phonetically. So, we can say that the genetic taxon of the
>         Turkic languages has been verified by the typological methods.
>         What do you think about that? Looking forward to hearing from
>         you to yutamb at <mailto:yutamb at>
>         <mailto:yutamb at <mailto:yutamb at>>  Yours sincerely
>         Yuri Tambovtsev

More information about the Lingtyp mailing list