Sound change and analogy in morphological paradigms: Why automated inference is on the horizon

Erich Round (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena; University of Queensland) 

The comparative method is one of the greatest methodological achievements in the history of linguistics. And yet, despite its relatively precise formulation, we do not have an automated implementation of it, and consequently we face a very long wait to know more about the inferable history of language families around the globe. One may well ask why. As it happens, in a mathematical PhD thesis from 2010, Alexandre Bouchard-Côté demonstrated why, by showing that even the inference of sound change was computationally infeasible. Bouchard-Côté pointed to two impediments: (1) a factorial explosion in the difficulty of the computational task, and (2) a paucity of evidence when the data consists of a short list of basic vocabulary. However, recent progress in computational statistics provides reason to believe that impediment (1) may be overcome for at least some models of linguistic change. Impediment (2) might be alleviated by allowing the algorithms to look at richer sources of data (as we humans do), such as inflectional paradigms. And so, in this talk I discuss the prospects for trying to automate a core aspect of the comparative method: the inference of sound change and analogy in paradigms, with an emphasis on analogy. I discuss what is already known about analogy; what it might entail to model that knowledge explicitly; the role to be played by mathematical models of language change; and what research questions the exercise might realistically help us to ask.

This talk will take place at 4:15 on Friday 10 January 2020 at SOAS University of London, the Brunei Gallery Building (opposite the Main Building) in Room B103.

Mechanising historical phonology

by Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth University)

The neogrammarian approach to historical phonology involves propounding sound-change laws and explaining exceptions by means such as sub-laws, rearranging the relative chronology, and appeal to special factors such as analogy, borrowing, incomplete lexical diffusion, and sporadic phenomena like metathesis. Progress is mostly made manually, but in the second half of the 20th century some linguists looked forward to the ‘triumph of the electronic neogrammarian’. Although this hasn’t been realized yet, I’ll argue that there are opportunities to make important advances with comparatively little effort.


This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in Cambridge, Selwyn College, Diamond Room, on Saturday, 10 March, 4.15pm.