“Trees are a gift to students of the past,” posts Johnson, The Economist’s language blogger. “An entire discipline, known as dendrochronology, is devoted to using tree rings to date ancient wooden objects and buildings. Linguistic archaeologists, it seems, share these arboreal inclinations, though the trees they examine are of an altogether different species.”
Computer-generated phylogenies, or genealogical trees, have been used to map the evolution of the Indo-European language family over millennia, from its roots in ancient Anatolia to the modern day. Now, they are being used to map the spread of these tongues across space.
By collecting vocabulary, compiling lists of etymological relatives and adding information about where and when each word is thought to have been used, researchers have created a “multidimensional Venn diagram” marking the overlapping similarities between languages.
103 languages form part of the family tree. Each constitutes a leaf. The branches that connect these leaves are determined by algorithms and a certain amount of trial and error. So, are Icelandic and Iranian siblings or distant cousins? Read Johnson’s full post here →