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The Significance of Word Lists cover

The Significance of Word Lists

Brett Kessler

The most strident controversies in historical linguistics debate whether claims for historical connections between languages are erroneously based on chance similarities between word lists. But even though it is the province of statistical mathematics to judge whether evidence is significant or due to chance, neither side in these debates uses statistics, leaving readers little room to adjudicate competing claims objectively. This book fills that gap by presenting a new statistical methodology that helps linguists decide whether short word lists have more recurrent sound correspondences than can be expected by chance. The author shows that many of the complicating rules of thumb linguists invoke to obviate chance resemblances, such as multilateral comparison or emphasizing grammar over vocabulary, actually decrease the power of quantitative tests. But while the statistical methodology itself is straightforward, the author also details the extensive linguistic work needed to produce word lists that do not yield nonsensical results.

Brett Kessler is in the Psychology Department at Wayne State University.


  • Preface
  • 1 Introduction
    • 1.1 Types of Historical Connection
    • 1.2 Traditional Metrics

  • 2 Statistical Methodology
    • 2.1 Traditional Methodology
    • 2.2 Tests for Association
      • 2.2.1 Contingency Tables
      • 2.2.2 Significance
    • 2.3 Statistical Approaches to Historical Linguistics
    • 2.4 Tests Using Sound Recurrence

  • 3 Significance Testing
  • 4 Tests in Different Environments
  • 5 Size of Word Lists
  • 6 Precision and Lumping
    • 6.1 Semantic Fuzziness
    • 6.2 Phonetic Lumping
    • 6.3 Semantic Lumping

  • 7 Nonarbitrary Vocabulary
    • 7.1 Grammatical Elements

  • 8 Historical Connection vs. Relatedness
  • 9 Language-Internal Cognates
    • 9.1 Item Deletion
    • 9.2 Trimming Words
    • 9.3 Stratificational Approaches

  • 10 Recurrence Metrics
    • 10.1 Chi-Squared Versus Recurrence
    • 10.2 Phonetic Features
    • 10.3 Multiple Phoneme Matches
    • 10.4 Subsample Averaging
    • 10.5 Multilateral Comparisons

  • 11 Conclusions
    • 11.1 Recipe
    • 11.2 Appraisal

  • Appendix: Word Lists
    • Abbreviations
    • Words

  • References
  • Index


ISBN (Paperback): 1575863006 (9781575863009)
ISBN (Cloth): 1575862999 (9781575862996)

Subject: Linguistics; Lexicostatistics; Historical Linguistics--Methodology

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