Glottochronology


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Glottochronology

 

a set of various statistical methods for dating the prehistoric processes of the separation of language families. Glottochronology claims to determine, in absolute or relative terms, the period of time during which individual languages became differentiated from a common parent language. The most common variant of the glottochronological method, which was devised in the 1950’s by the American linguist M. Swadesh, is based on the assumption that there exists in the languages of the world a universal lexical stratum, which reflects concepts that are basic to human society and whose rate of change is approximately identical in different periods.

Glottochronology uses the formula t = log c/2 log r, where t represents the time from the beginning of the separation of two languages to the present moment, determined by the number of common lexical elements that have been retained; c is the percentage of the original stock of the universal vocabulary retained in a given language; and r is the empirically revealed mean index of the words retained (expressed as a percentage) after one millennium. The results of specific estimates do not provide strong support for the datings because of a certain mechanistic aspect of the method’s basic premises. The resultant absolute dates may have real significance if they are controlled by nonstatistical estimates of linguistic time.

REFERENCES

Novoe v lingvistike, fasc. 1. Edited by V. A. Zvegintsev. Moscow, 1960. Pages 9-107.
Klimov, G. A. “O leksiko-statisticheskoi teorii M. Svodesha.” In Voprosy teorii iazyka v sovremennoi zarubezhnoi lingvistike. Moscow, 1961.

G. A. KLIMOV

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Professor Sims-Williams said linguists did not believe in glottochronology.
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The contributors to these volumes are unanimous in giving glottochronology the short shrift it deserves, but little is offered in its place.