JCJC - Jeunes chercheuses & jeunes chercheurs

Evolution of languages : Diachronic Data and Models – EoL-DiaDM

Submission summary

The methods developed in historical linguistics to study the evolution of languages are limited by a restricted quantitative dimension and a shortage of computational implementation. Few are the models which attempt to formalize diachronic processes, hampering the task of language reconstruction and classification. These limits are essentially due to the fact that the data about these diachronic phenomena are scattered, hindering any attempt to theoretically synthesize linguistic evolution. In the same way that evolutionary biology had to build its theoretical synthesis of evolution, historical linguistics is now bound to construct its own synthesis to reach beyond its present limits. The present proposal deals with the construction of an electronic platform dedicated to historical linguistics that would allow it to expand beyond its current limits. This platform would associate diachronic databases with novel methodologies for quantitative modelling of diachronic processes and a space for critical discussion about data and models in historical linguistics. The diachronic databases envisaged are 1) a database for sound changes, destined to derive a typology and universals of sound change 2) a database for the structures hypothesized for the reconstructed protolanguages and 3) a database for the lexicon reconstructed for these languages. This database triptych would constitute a holistic description of protolanguages, and would allow to compare systematically this diachronic data to the synchronic data of similar nature, as well as to study the interactions between the different structural components of the language throughout evolution. For the methodological part of the project, inspiration is essentially drawn from molecular phylogenetics and population genetics, as these areas of evolutionary biology tackle issues which are similar to those posed in historical linguistics. Analogies between biological and linguistic evolution will be evaluated in order to select the methods developed in evolutionary biology which would be interesting to co-opt in historical linguistics to address similar issues. This diachronic platform will also contain a space open for scientific discussion about the traditional or novel methods used in historical linguistics and the principal issues which have to be addressed for a theoretical synthesis on linguistic evolution. In the shape of virtual colloquia, critical discussions will be initiated on specific issues on data and models that will benefit from a larger audience than the usual conferences, in both different domains of expertise in historical linguistics and complementary disciplines. Confronting various expertises both within historical linguistics and with other disciplines is essential to avoid overgeneralization from single cases, which would definitely prejudice the synthesis.

Project coordination

Mahé BEN HAMED (Organisme de recherche)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


Help of the ANR 110,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 24 Months

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