Glottochronology time period at which languages split is given


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 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words decrease and the use of more outdated words increase.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rate of disappearance of outdated words by choosing specific archaic words that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, the glottochronology method 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, in a lexicostatistical
study of the PIE languages, 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.


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).