Structural Phylogeny in Historical Linguistics: Methodological Explorations Applied in Island Melanesia

Michael Dunn, Stephen C. Levinson, Eva Lindström, Ger Reesink, Angela Terrill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Using various methods derived from evolutionary biology, including maximum parsimony and Bayesian phylogenetic analysis, we tackle the question of the relationships among a group of Papuan isolate languages that have hitherto resisted accepted attempts at demonstration of interrelatedness. Instead of using existing vocabulary-based methods, which cannot be applied to these languages due to the paucity of shared lexemes, we created a database of STRUCTURAL FEATURES —abstract phonological and grammatical features apart from their form. The methods are first tested on the closely related Oceanic languages spoken in the same region as the Papuan languages in question. We find that using biological methods on structural features can recapitulate the results of the comparative method tree for the Oceanic languages, thus showing that structural features can be a valid way of extracting linguistic history. Application of the same methods to the otherwise unrelatable Papuan languages is therefore likely to be similarly valid. Because languages that have been in contact for protracted periods may also converge, we outline additional methods for distinguishing convergence from inherited relatedness.*
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)710-759
Number of pages49
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2008


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