LINGUIST List 12.790

Thu Mar 22 2001

Books: Quantitative Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <>

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  1. Kim Lewis Brown, Quantitative Ling: The Significance of Word Lists by K Brett

Message 1: Quantitative Ling: The Significance of Word Lists by K Brett

Date: Mon, 19 Mar 2001 09:10:59 -0800
From: Kim Lewis Brown <kimcsli.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: Quantitative Ling: The Significance of Word Lists by K Brett

Kessler, Brett (Wayne State University) ; 
paperback ISBN: 1-57586-300-6, cloth ISBN: 1-57586-299-9; 180 pages. 
CSLI Publications 2001. 

To order this book, contact The University of Chicago Press. Call
their toll free order number 1-800-621-2736 (U.S. & Canada only) or
order online at 
(use the search feature to locate the book, then order).

Book description:

Similar words for similar concepts turn up in many widely scattered
languages. Some linguists insist that this is simply due to chance
while others claim that many if not all of the world's languages
descended from a single prehistoric language. Yet neither position in
this strident controversy has been analyzed or supported with
statistics. New computerized statistical techniques can help determine
whether or not words in different languages have an ancestral
connection. In "THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WORD LISTS," flexible techniques
are explained, broken into steps, and illustrated in a manner that
provides the necessary principles to linguists with no background in

This methodology measures the probabilistic significance of sound
correspondences between short word lists. Many rules of thumb invoked
by linguists in order to obviate chance resemblances, such as
multilateral comparison and emphasizing grammar over vocabulary, are
shown to actually decrease the power of quantitative tests. While the
procedures presented here are straightforward, the author also details
the extensive linguistic work needed to produce word lists that will
not yield nonsensical results. Examples analyze the 200 words in 8
languages that are enumerated and detailed in an appendix.
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Friday, March 16, 2001