Glottochronology

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Glottochronology (from Att.-Greek γλῶττα „tongue, language“ and χρóνος „time“) is that part of lexicostatistics dealing with the chronological relationship between languages.[1]

The idea has been developed by Morris Swadesh under two assumptions: First that there exists a relatively stable "basic vocabulary" (therefore called "Swadesh lists") in all languages of the world, and secondly that any replacements happen in a way analogical to that in radioactive decay in constant percentages per time elapsed. Meanwhile there exist many different methods, partly extensions of the Swadesh method, now more and more methods under biological assumptions of replacements in genes. However, Swadesh's technique is so well known that, for many people, 'glottochronology' refers to it alone.[2][3]

Contents

Methodology

Word list

The original method presumed that the core vocabulary of a language is replaced at a constant (or near constant) rate across all languages and cultures, and can therefore be used to measure the passage of time. The process makes use of a list of lexical terms compiled by Morris Swadesh assumed to be resistant against borrowing (originally designed as a list of 200 items; however, the refined 100 word list in Swadesh (1955) is much more common among modern day linguists). This core vocabulary was designed to encompass concepts common to every human language (such as personal pronouns, body parts, heavenly bodies, verbs of basic actions, numerals 'one' and 'two', etc.), eliminating concepts that are specific to a particular culture or time. It has been found that this ideal is not in fact possible and that the meaning set may need to be tailored to the languages being compared.

The percentage of cognates (words that have a common origin) in these word lists is then measured. The larger the percentage of cognates, the more recently the two languages being compared are presumed to have separated.

Glottochronologic constant

Lees obtained a value for the "glottochronological constant" of words by considering the known changes in 13 pairs of languages using the 200 word list. He obtained a value of 0.806 ± 0.0176 with 90% confidence. For the 100 word list Swadesh obtained a value of 0.86, the higher value reflecting the elimination of semantically unstable words. This constant may be related to the retention rate of words by:-

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