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Gastvortrag am Institut für Biologie - Michael Rießler

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Vortrag zur phylogenetischen Methode in der Linguistik

  • Gastvortrag
Wann 05.11.2014
von 14:00 bis 16:00
Wo Bibliothek der Biometrie, Tennenbacher Str. 4, Raum 03.060
Kontakttelefon 3219
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Linguistics goes Biology (and Back): Modeling the Micro- and Macroevolution of Saamic Language Varieties

Michael Rießler (Freiburg Research Group in Saami Studies)

Quantitative methods have been used to study the evolutionary relationships and divergence times of biological species, but recently, they have also been applied to linguistic data in order to elucidate the evolutionary history of language families (e.g. Gray et al. 2003 for Indo-European). In our project on Uralic languages (Lehtinen et al. 2014) we apply quantitative methods to clarify the divergence process of closely related languages, which emerge between dialect continua and fully diverged varieties. This study therefore operates between the microevolutionary (divergence of populations within a species) and macroevolutionary (speciation and extinction) levels of language lineaging. Our approach to explain diversification uses phylogenetic methods and is informed by theories of evolutionary biology. The results are compared with reconstructions based on comparative-historical linguistic data.

The Saamic languages under investigation here belong to one branch of the Uralic family and are spoken in a vast area stretching over central and northern Fennoscandia. Language phylogenetics most often employs phylogenetic tree models, which provide not only the shape of the tree but also reliability estimates of branches. Previous studies on the Uralic family (Lehtinen et al. [in press], Syrjänen et al. 2013, Honkola et al. 2013) compared tree models to networks and found discrepancies between these, especially with regard to interpreting the history of closely related languages: tree models yielded strong support values for branching, whereas networks suggested a dialect continuum between the languages. This suggests that tree models may fail in revealing the genealogy of closely related languages.

Divergence of populations and species is often a function of geographic distance. We test the importance of geographic distance in promoting or constraining contacts between the speaker populations. We further study the effect of other geographic isolation factors, occurrence of administrative barriers and even (pre)historic cultural variation for the divergence process. We finally discuss how to incorporate frameworks of biological microevolution in studies on divergence of closely related languages and how this can promote the understanding of language lineaging in general.


Gray, R. D. & Atkinson, Q. D. Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature, 426. 2003. 435–439.

Honkola, T., Vesakoski, O., Korhonen, K., Lehtinen, J., Syrjänen, K., Wahlberg, N.: Cultural and climatic changes shape the evolutionary history of the Uralic languages. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 26. 2013. 1244–1253.

Lehtinen, J, Rießler, M. Vesakoski, O.: “Modeling the linguistic diversification of Finno-Saamic languages.” Unpublished ms. 2014.

Lehtinen, J., Honkola, T., Korhonen, K., Syrjänen, K., Wahlberg, N. & Vesakoski, O.: “Behind family trees: Secondary connections in Uralic language networks.” Language Dynamics and Change (in press).

Syrjänen, K., Honkola, T., Korhonen, K., Lehtinen, J., Vesakoski, O., & Wahlberg, N.: Shedding more light on language classification using basic vocabularies and phylogenetic methods: a case study of Uralic. Diachronica, 30. 2013. 323–352.

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