One of my favorite correspondents (thanks, Carol!) has sent me a NY Times story by Nicholas Wade about “a new way of linking languages, which [linguists] say has allowed them to reconstruct a network of the languages spoken in islands near New Guinea.”
The new method is designed for languages so old that little trace of their common vocabulary remains. It forges connections between languages through grammatical features, which change less quickly than words.
With the new tool, historians may be able to peer considerably further back in time than the 5,000 to 7,000 years or so that many linguists see as the limit beyond which no sure connections can be made between languages.
The authors of the new method say the relationships they can construct may be 10,000 years or older.
The researchers, who were led by Michael Dunn, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Holland, have published their work in the current issue of Science.
I know nothing about the Papuan languages, so I can’t evaluate the conclusions they come to, but it bothers me that the scientist quoted praising the approach and saying it will be “widely emulated” is a biologist, not a linguist. None of my fellow linguabloggers has discussed the story, so consider this a call for comment: anybody have an informed opinion on whether this is valuable or just another bit of linguistic cold fusion?