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Glottochronology is a method that calculates the time period
in which two languages separated in the past, comparable to carbon dating. The
glottochronology method has two main postulates: the presence of language
change and the rate of change of language. Through all the readings and
lectures presented over the course of the previous quarter, it is made clear
that a language changes over time – it is an inevitable progression. To the
majority of English speakers, text written in the Elizabethan era such as the
work of Shakespeare can pose a bit of difficulty with comprehension due to the
presence of archaic language. When going back further to prose by Chaucer or
even further towards older forms of English, it becomes extremely challenging
to understand as more recognizable words decrease and the use of more outdated
words increase. The glottochronology method measures the time depth of
languages by examining this rate of disappearance of outdated words by choosing
specific archaic words that are present in both the considered languages (also
called cognates). The glottochronology method assumes that certain words are
more present in the languages or more stable than other words. Hence, usually a
list of around 100 words are chosen – called the basic core – that are relatively
more stable words. The second assumption made is that the rate of change of
language, or the loss of the cognates (disappearance of specific words in the
basic core), is the same for all languages at all given times. Therefore, the
formula used to calculate the time period at which languages split is given by:

T =

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time depth (in years) or how many years the languages considered diverged

percentage of cognates shared between the two languages considered

the rate of change of language as a percentage or the retention rate as a


Whilst the glottochronology method has been proven to be
useful in tracking the time frames of many languages, there are many
limitations of the method – present as a result of both the assumptions made for
the method, mentioned above, and the practice of method.


The first limitation of the method would be the inaccuracy of
the assumption that the rate of change of language for all languages is the
same at all given times. The retention rates of different languages vary a lot.

Not to mention, a single language itself will have not necessarily have the
same rate of change throughout the history of the language. Bergsland and Vogt,
in 1962, actually found evidence that present-day languages and their older
forms had a huge difference in their respective rates of retention. This could
be for a variety of reasons such as the environmental factors or
extralinguistic circumstances during a given time period such as migration,
social contact or even demographics, potentially speeding or slowing down the
divergence. This could greatly impact the time depth calculated by the
glottochronology method.


The second limitation of the method would be the issue with
choosing cognates. The list of 100 words or the basic core does not consider
the cultural significance attached to each of the words. For instance, natural
words, in certain cultures such as in South Asian cultures, are words that are not
often spoken and hence are not part of the common, day-to-day vocabulary. This
implies that they do not have the same level of stability as other words do –
rendering the method inaccurate. Moreover, this method does not focus on
non-lexical language changes; rather, only cognate lexical factors are
considered, ignoring the change in pronunciation or grammar or even the change
in the meaning of a cognate over time. The method further ignores the concept
of borrowing. A lot of similarities between languages are not a result of their
splitting from an ancestral language, but rather just one language borrowing a
sound or a word from another language or even just due to sheer coincidence.

For instance, the English word “much” and the Spanish word “mucho” do not stem
from the same source. Hence, once again, a lexical statistical analysis would
depict two languages to be more closely related than the considered languages
actually are.


The last limitation that needs to be considered revolves
around the formula itself. The formula is composed of logarithms. Due to the
characteristics of a logarithm, the accuracy of the time depth calculated
decreases the longer the time period it is.


Whilst the method has a lot of limitations, Dyen, Krushkal
and Black, in a lexicostatistical study of the Proto Indo-European language,
realized that results from the glottochronology method seemed to correlate with
the relationships between languages and tree topologies that other methods
confirmed. This suggests that the limitations of the method may not heavily
impact the results derived from glottochronology. Not to mention, there are
instances wherein glottochronology can provide information that other methods
cannot. A prime example of this, Edda Field’s research into of the history of
the coastal Guinea-Conakry region heavily relied on glottochronology, one of
the sole sources of data available about this region before the 15th
century. Without the use of glottochronology, Field would not have been able to
successfully reconstruct the history of the region, as there was virtually zero
written or oral accounts. 


Taking into account the limitations of the method and its
successes, the only aspect of the method that I would change would be to ensure
that most of the borrowed words between the languages are removed from the
basic core. Ideally, I would change the formula in such a way that there would
be no limitations. However, this is impractical. In all fields, assumptions and
simplifications need to be made in order to create a model or a general method
applicable to all cases. The reality of a situation is going to be a lot more
complicated than a model or method, but it is essential to create models and
methods nonetheless to allow for an apt or approximately
apt description of reality.  To expect
one to calculate and find the retention rate for all languages at all given
times is unfeasible. Similarly, even though the formula or function is not
applicable after an extremely long time depth, it is usually the case, even in
something as reliable and predictable as carbon dating, that after a certain
value or point, the equation is not realistic. Therefore, regardless of the
limitation, for relatively accurate
results on time depth, the glottochronology method can be quite useful,
especially since new processes, commonly practiced in biological research such
as molecular divergence, have been used to improve glottochronology (such as
the Bayesian phylogenetic approach).

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