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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



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.


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.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.