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Johannes Dellert and Armin Buch


Based on a recently published large-scale lexicostatistical database, we rank 1,016 concepts by their suitability for inclusion in Swadesh-style lists of basic stable concepts. For this, we define separate measures of basicness and stability. Basicness in the sense of morphological simplicity is measured based on information content, a generalization of word length which corrects for distorting effects of phoneme inventory sizes, phonotactics and non-stem morphemes in dictionary forms. Stability against replacement by semantic shift or borrowing is measured by sampling independent language pairs, and correlating the distances between the forms for the concept with the overall language distances. In order to determine the relative importance of basicness and stability, we optimize our combination of the two partial measures towards similarity with existing lists. A comparison with and among existing rankings suggests that concept rankings are highly data-dependent and therefore less well-grounded than previously assumed. To explore this issue, we evaluate the robustness of our ranking against language pair resampling, allowing us to assess how much volatility can be expected, and showing that only about half of the concepts on a list based on our ranking can safely be assumed to belong on the list independently of the data.

Gerhard Jäger and Johann-Mattis List


Current efforts in computational historical linguistics are predominantly concerned with phylogenetic inference. Methods for ancestral state reconstruction have only been applied sporadically. In contrast to phylogenetic algorithms, automatic reconstruction methods presuppose phylogenetic information in order to explain what has evolved when and where. Here we report a pilot study exploring how well automatic methods for ancestral state reconstruction perform in the task of onomasiological reconstruction in multilingual word lists, where algorithms are used to infer how the words evolved along a given phylogeny, and reconstruct which cognate classes were used to express a given meaning in the ancestral languages. Comparing three different methods, Maximum Parsimony, Minimal Lateral Networks, and Maximum Likelihood on three different test sets (Indo-European, Austronesian, Chinese) using binary and multi-state coding of the data as well as single and sampled phylogenies, we find that Maximum Likelihood largely outperforms the other methods. At the same time, however, the general performance was disappointingly low, ranging between 0.66 (Chinese) and 0.79 (Austronesian) for the F-Scores. A closer linguistic evaluation of the reconstructions proposed by the best method and the reconstructions given in the gold standards revealed that the majority of the cases where the algorithms failed can be attributed to problems of independent semantic shift (homoplasy), to morphological processes in lexical change, and to wrong reconstructions in the independently created test sets that we employed.

Shinji Ido

The present article describes the vowel chain shift that occurred in the variety of Tajik spoken by Jewish residents in Bukhara. It identifies the chain shift as constituting of an intermediate stage of the Northern Tajik chain shift and accordingly tentatively concludes that in the Northern Tajik chain shift Early New Persian ā shifted before ō did, shedding light on the process whereby the present-day Tajik vowel system was established. The article is divided into three parts. The first provides an explanation of the variety of Tajik spoken by Jewish inhabitants of Bukhara. The second section explains the relationship between this particular variety and other varieties that have been used by Jews in Central Asia. The third section deals specifically with the vowel system of the variety and the changes that it has undergone since the late 19th century.

Martine Robbeets

In this paper, I propose a hypothesis reconciling Austronesian influence and Transeurasian ancestry in the Japanese language, explaining the spread of the Japanic languages through farming dispersal. To this end, I identify the original speech community of the Transeurasian language family as the Neolithic Xinglongwa culture situated in the West Liao River Basin in the sixth millennium BC. I argue that the separation of the Japanic branch from the other Transeurasian languages and its spread to the Japanese Islands can be understood as occurring in connection with the dispersal of millet agriculture and its subsequent integration with rice agriculture. I further suggest that a prehistorical layer of borrowings related to rice agriculture entered Japanic from a sister language of proto-Austronesian, at a time when both language families were still situated in the Shandong-Liaodong interaction sphere.

Joseph E. Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund

This response mostly addresses the comments, but its main point is that 11th c. “language contact” syntactic changes suggest that Norse was expanding while West Saxon was contracting.

The Descent of English

West Germanic, Any Way You Slice It

Cristopher Font-Santiago and Joseph Salmons

Emonds & Faarlund judge subgrouping by problematic criteria and do not actually employ their stated criteria, while those criteria in fact show English to be West Germanic.

Jan Terje Faarlund and Joseph E. Emonds

The present article is a summary of the book English: The Language of the Vikings by Joseph E. Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund. The major claim of the book and of this article is that there are lexical and, above all, syntactic arguments in favor of considering Middle and Modern English as descending from the North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian population in the East and North of England prior to the Norman Conquest, rather than from the West Germanic Old English.

Ans van Kemenade

Emonds & Faarlund’s assessment of the language contact situation between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings is ill-informed historically. I furthermore discuss a number of instances where their analysis of Scandinavian linguistic impact on English is based on overly hasty interpretations of the literature.

Middle English

English, Not Norse

Sarah G. Thomason

The Viking hypothesis is fatally flawed, in part because syntax is readily borrowed in intense contact situations, while inflectional morphology usually is not—and Middle English inflectional morphology is overwhelmingly of West Germanic origin. The dismissal of lexical evidence is also misguided: the vast majority of basic vocabulary items come from Old English, not from Norse.