On Wednesday, September 30th, I gave a Applied Language Studies and Linguistics Seminar on “Using phylogenetics to understand languages and cultures”:
Languages are the archives of history. Their elements – such as lexicon and grammar – carry historical signal about the people who spoke these languages and their cultures. Biologists have developed a powerful set of statistical phylogenetic methods for answering questions about human prehistory using genetic data. Information from language, however, holds far greater potential for understanding our past. In this talk I will discuss some of the work I have been doing to apply phylogenetic methods to languages. I will first use these methods to test between hypotheses about the settlement of the Pacific, and to reveal some striking patterns of cultural change. I will then discuss how phylogenetic methods can integrate with the comparative method to help explore issues like language subgrouping, inference of proto-languages, and linguistic paleontology.