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Lecture | Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (CIEL) Seminars

A New Database, Family Tree and Origins Hypothesis for the Indo-European Language Family

Friday 22 March 2024
Drinks afterwards in the LUCL common room.
Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (CIEL) Seminars
Matthias de Vrieshof
Matthias de Vrieshof 1-4
2311 BZ Leiden
Building 2 room 0.02


A recent article in Science* publishes a new form of family tree for Indo-European, and a new hypothesis on its origins and expansion.  Firstly, the paper and this talk present a new open database devised to serve many research aims in Indo-European linguistics.  IE-CoR (iecor.clld.org) captures cognacy relationships among 109 modern and 52 historical Indo-European languages, across a new, tailored set of 170 meanings in core lexicon.  

Controversially, the Science paper then applies Bayesian phylogenetic analysis to the IE-CoR data and date-calibrated languages, to estimate the time-depth of the family and its many branches.  This analysis dates (Proto-)Indo-European to c. 8100 years ago, as a central estimate of when it began to spread and diverge.  

This date, the multiple early branches within the family tree structure, and the position and antiquity of Indo-Iranic, fit with neither the ‘Steppe’ nor the ‘farming’ hypothesis for Indo-European origins.  Instead, separate aspects of each combine into a new ‘hybrid’ hypothesis:  Indo-European originated not on the Steppe north of the Black Sea, but in the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent, and only some of its main branches in Europe came through the Steppe, as a secondary staging-post.  This new hypothesis is assessed against the latest findings in archaeology and ancient DNA that are also claimed to bear on the origins of Indo-European.

The findings are controversial, so this talk addresses the methodological questions that attend Bayesian language phylogenies — alongside the doubts that likewise attend more traditional techniques that have long claimed to have already given a definitive, ‘Steppe’ answer on Indo-European origins.  

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