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Indo-European Languages

Quentin Atkinson

Department of Psychology,
University of Auckland,

Assoc. Prof. Russell Gray
Department of Psychology,
University of Auckland

Languages, like genes, provide vital clues about human prehistory. Since at least Darwin it has been recognized that languages evolve in a similar way to biological species. These similarities mean that the phylogenetic tree building tools currently employed by biologists can be readily applied to language data. Although these techniques have been used successfully in biology, they have drawn relatively little attention from linguists. This is somewhat surprising as the methodology is a vast improvement on the tree building techniques traditionally employed by linguists. My research combines lexical data with phylogenetic methods from biology to elucidate our cultural and linguistic past.

The current focus of analyses is the Indo-European (IE) language family. IE represents the most studied group of languages in the world. Despite this, the age of IE remains hotly contested by archaeologists, linguists and biologists alike. There are currently two major opposing theories of IE origin. The first, posits that IE languages began to diverge from a common ancestor with the invasion of Europe and the near-East by Kurgan horseman between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. The second, claims that IE diverged with the spread of agriculture from Anatolia some 9,000 years ago. Studies in population genetics have been unable to resolve the Kurgan/Anatolia debate because of problems resulting from admixture and the relatively recent dates involved. I am using Bayesian inference along with maximum-likelihood models of lexical evolution and rate smoothing algorithms to estimate divergence times and hence date the birth of IE. It is also hoped that the methodology and models of evolution developed can be used to reconstruct the history of other language families such as Austronesian, Native American and Bantu.