September 26, 2004

Eska and Ringe on Forster and Toth

The September issue of Language has an "discussion note" by Joseph Eska and Don Ringe entitled "Recent work in computational linguistic phylogeny." If your institution has a Project Muse subscription, you can access the pdf here (though you still can't learn this from the LSA's pathetically out-of-date "Language Online" web page, nor anywhere else on the LSA's web site, as far as I can tell).

The article starts by listing "a number of recent attempts by nonlinguists to reconstruct linguistic evolutionary trees," including Rexová et al. 2003, Gray & Atkinson 2003, and Forster & Toth 2003, and asserting that "[s]cientific linguists have not been impressed for a variety of reasons". Eska and Ringe write that

Though no two of the publications in question exhibit exactlythe same weaknesses, all can be impugned on one or more of the following grounds: the linguistic data employed have not been adequately analyzed, or—in some cases—even competently analyzed; the model of language change employed has not been shown to fit the known facts of language change; attempts to fix the dates of prehistoric languages have ignored the fatal shortcomings of glottochronology discovered by Bergsland and Vogt (1962...); the researchers assume that vocabulary replacement is governed by a LEXICAL CLOCK (similar to the controversial MOLECULAR CLOCK posited by some biological cladists); and/or the data set used is too small to yield statistically reliable conclusions.

A thoroughgoing critique of all recentlypublished work in this vein would be unwieldy and would require far more space than a discussion note permits. Instead, we focus on the article that best exemplifies the shortcomings listed above, namely the work of Forster and Toth.

Earlier more informal analyses of Foster and Toth were already devastating, and under Eska and Ringe's scrutiny, things don't get any better. Let's just say that they make the rubble bounce, several times.

I'm not familiar with Rexová et al. 2003 (that's Rexova, K. Frynta, D. and Zrzavy, Jan. 2003. "Cladistic analysis of languages: Indo-European classification based on lexicostatistical data". Cladistics. 19: 120-127). However, I've read Gray & Atkinson, and discussed the work with Russell Gray as well as with Don Ringe, Bill Poser and Tandy Warnow. See here, here, here, here, here and especially here and here for various prior Language Log posts on this topic.

Based on that experience, I think it's unfair to put Gray & Atkinson in the same category as Foster & Toth. As I wrote earlier, Gray & Atkinson's stuff "is serious and interesting work. Its methods and conclusions remain controversial but they are worthy of very close attention".

I know that Don Ringe is not convinced by their arguments, but in my opinion, that belongs in the large category of differences of opinion among serious scholars.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 26, 2004 08:18 PM