Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Phyloseminar: ""Language phylogenies and cultural evolution" Online 1/16 2 PM PST

From home

"Language phylogenies and cultural evolution"

Simon Greenhill (Australian National University)

"Charles Darwin famously noted that there were many curious parallels between the evolution of species and languages. Since then evolutionary biology and historical linguistics have used trees to conceptualise evolution. However, whilst evolutionary biology developed the vast discipline of phylogenetic methods, linguistics dabbled with computational methods before rejecting them. The last decade or so has seen the introduction of phylogenetic methods into linguistics, often with some startling results. In this talk I will present some of these studies, and discuss how phylogenetics can help us grapple with the problems of linguistic and cultural evolution. These problems range from testing population dispersal hypotheses, to investigating the shape of cultural evolution, to inferring the rates at which languages change.

West Coast USA:14:00 (02:00 PM) on Wednesday, January 16
East Coast USA:17:00 (05:00 PM) on Wednesday, January 16
UK:22:00 (10:00 PM) on Wednesday, January 16
France:23:00 (11:00 PM) on Wednesday, January 16
Japan:07:00 (07:00 AM) on Thursday, January 17
New Zealand:11:00 (11:00 AM) on Thursday, January 17


  1. Linguists always get annoyed when it is presented like in the abstract -- as if Darwin was the first to realize that languages evolved and realized it from analogy from the biological world. In fact the influence went the other way -- Darwin was inspired by the works of people like William Jones, who in the 1700s showed that Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit must have had a common ancestor.

    It's true that even though they came with the idea first, phylogeny fell out of favor among linguists until recently.

  2. Hi Jonathan - that was exactly the line I took in the talk. I pointed out that Darwin was late, and that people like Sir William Jones, Friedrich Schlegel and August Schleicher got there first. I then moved onto why phylogeny fell out of favor in linguistics.


  3. It is more fruitful to consider language as a component of a wider evolutionary process.

    An evolutionary continuum which can be traced from at least as far back as the formation of the chemical elements in stars and supernovae, right through such phases as the evolution of minerals, biology and the evolution of technology that has occurred over the last 2.5 million years within the collective imagination of our species. Enabled by the export, import and external storage of imagination that we identify as language.

    The broad evolutionary model which supports this contention is outlined, very informally in "The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?" , a free download in e-book formats from the "Unusual Perspectives" website


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