Historical linguistics blog - even thursdays

2018 > 11

Phylogenetic tree, where Tocharian is second to branch off, after Anatolian (by Chundra Cathcart). Phylogenetic tree, where Tocharian is second to branch off, after Anatolian (by Chundra Cathcart).
This post is related to what I am currently busy with: preparing and introductory course on Tocharian. There is a long-debated dilemma in Tocharian studies, which concern the position of Tocharian within the Indo-European language tree. Due to its status as a kentum-language, most scholars of the early 20th ct. regarded Tocharian as a western Indo-European language (together with Celtic, Germanic, Italic and so forth) rather than an eastern language. This view is not supported anymore, but the position of Tocharian still remains an enigma. Today, most scholars agree that Tocharian branched off from the Indo-European proto-language directly (and is thus not more closely related to any other branch). The disagreement of contemporary scholars is whether Tocharian branched off second, after Anatolian, and before the other Indo-European branches or not. There are several arguments in favor of the second-to-branch-off theory. One argument is the occurrence of lexical archaisms in Tocharian, meaning that a handful of etymologies have preserved a more general meaning in Tocharian, whereas the other branches show a more spezialized meaning. Examples are:
  • Toch. AB yäp- ‘enter’, Skt. yabh-, Greek oíphō, Russ. ebu ‘have intercourse’ < PIE *yebh- ‘enter’ (LIV:309) The original meaning of the verb is preserved in Tocharian.
  • TB kärweñe ‘stone, rock’, Skt. grāvan- ‘stone for pressing out soma’, Welsh breuan ‘handmill’, Old Ch. Slav. žrǔny ‘handmill’.
  • TB śrān-* ‘(adult) man’ < PIE *ģerh₂-ōn, Skt. járant- ‘old, fragile’, Gr. géront- ‘geriatric’, Oss. zärond ‘old’ < PIE * ģerh₂- ‘mature, grow’ (LIV:165). The meaning ‘old’, ‘geriatric’ is an innovation of the non-Tocharian languages.
The idea of lexical archaisms is not totally irrelevant; as I wrote in my previous blog, we know by statistical testing, that specialization is more frequent than generalization.
The other argument is from phylogenetics. In phylogenetic trees, Tocharian consistently branches off second, after Anatolian. Again, this argument is based on lexical data, but from a completely different angle.
What about grammar? The arguments in favor of Tocharian to be second to branch off are complicated, in particular since they are dependent on which type of system we reconstruct for Proto-Indo-European. Without going too much into detail, we have two types of reconstrucitons, one relatively simple system, more similar to Anatolian, from which the other branches developed their system, and one more complex reconstruction, more similar to Sanskrit and Classical Greek, in which Anatolian lost most of its grammar. The position of Tocharian here is not clear. It is obvious that Tocharian rearranged and rebuilt most of its nominal - and partly also verbal - system, and this complicates the picture. The Tocharian reformation of the system was partly done by morphological material which is found in the other branches, partly Anatolian but also Old Indic and Classical Greek.
The enigma waits to be solved.
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An evolutionary reconstruction of meanings of the cognacy tree of Proto-Indo-European *st(e)h₂w-ro- ’big cattle’ (?) (by Harald Hammarström) An evolutionary reconstruction of meanings of the cognacy tree of Proto-Indo-European *st(e)h₂w-ro- ’big cattle’ (?) (by Harald Hammarström)
I have not shared anything in a month, since I have been on a 'road-trip', first to Arizona for the CES conference, and then to Beijing and Changsha (Hunan Province) for a lecture series on historical and evolutionary linguistics.
In Arizona, we (with Harald Hammarström and Sandra Cronhamn) presented some results of evolutionary semantic studies on culture vocabularies of our corpus, including data from Indo-European, Caucasian families, Turkic, Uralic, Basque and ancient Semitic (book of abstracts is found here). This study has two aspects: one being the causalities of change rates, the second directionality of semantic change.
In this post, I will focus on the first aspect, causalities of change rates. As our data, we used the 100-list of cultural words of farming, pastoralism, hunting, war, technology, and industry, that we have in our database DiACL. We built an evolutionary model, where we measured gain and loss rates of 21,874 meaning tokens (6,224 types) within cognate trees, contrasted against Glottolog reference trees. After adjustment for transition frequency, 3,442 meanings remained. The gain and loss rates (given as probabilites) we tested against various metrics. We had some preliminary results, but the issue is still being researched. Previous research on lexical change rates (e.g., Pagel et al, Nature 449, Vejdemo et al, PLOS 2016 11,1) have indicated a connection to word frequency (the more frequent a word is, the lower change rates), as well as to age of acquisition, synonyms, arousal, imageability and average mutual information. However, this research has been performed on basic vocabulary only, and we expect most of these causalities to be less relevant to a vocabulary such as ours. Frequency, for instance, showed no correlation at all to our results. However, we found a negative correlation to borrowability, which is highly noteworthy: apparently, lexemes that are frequently borrowed have slower change rates. Further, we found a correlation to colexifcation tendency, as well as cognacy productivity, which is to be expected (words that change their meaning often and which are diverse in geography are expected to have high change rates). Currently, we test various semantic properties of the lexemes, and this is where the interesting part begins: it is evident that inherent properties that are said to impact gender and classifiers, such as animacy, shape, mass/count etc, have no correlation to change rates. But, cultural aspects, such as labour intensity, processability, possibility to control and change, do have an impact. I am still testing various properties and aspects, and hopefully, results can soon be made ready for submission.   
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