Video | Business Headlines | Internet | Science | Scientific Ethics | Technology | Search


Language "trees" provide window into the past

17 November 2004

Language "trees" provide window into the distant past

An Auckland University researcher who stunned academics worldwide by tracing origins of the English and all other Indo-European languages back 9000 years to farmers in Anatolia, now Turkey, has turned his attention to the Mayan and Aztec language families of Mesoamerica.

Associate Professor Russell Gray, an evolutionary biologist in the Faculty of Science's Department of Psychology, is applying the thinking and sophisticated mathematical and computer-modelling tools used by biologists for drawing up family trees of genes and species to the construction of "language trees".

Last year, his work and that of PhD student Quentin Atkinson, on reconstructing the Indo-European family of languages was published in "Nature" magazine, attracting worldwide attention for their controversial methods and findings.

Dr Gray is currently analysing the initial peopling of the Pacific, but with the recent award of a Marsden Fund grant, he and co-researcher Professor Lyle Campbell, of the University of Utah in the United States, will extend this work to Mesoamerica.

The research aims to increase understanding about why languages split and diversify, and why and how languages spread. It will test the theory that language dispersal was driven by the inception and spread of agriculture - a phenomenon that has been claimed to be the most important process in human history over the last 10,000 years.

The researchers plan to investigate the timing of expansions of four Mesoamerican Indian language families - Uto-Aztecan, the Mixe-Zoquean, Otomanguean, and Mayan, which existed around 6000 years ago, in the region now Mexico.

Dr Gray says the use of computational tree construction methods, derived from evolutionary biology, allows testing of theories about the sequence and timing of language expansions with much more precision and rigour than was previously possible.

Existing data sources will be used to construct large databases of basic vocabulary for the four language families, which will be converted into matrices for analyses of their evolutionary history.

"The task of making accurate inferences about events in our human pre-history is extremely demanding," says Dr Gray. "But application of these methods enables us to integrate evidence from genetics, linguistics and archaeology. This enables us to discriminate between rival theories and make much more powerful inferences about our past".

"As humans, we are generally curious about our origins," says Dr Gray, "We believe this work will take us a step closer to unravelling the causes of human diversity."


© Scoop Media

Business Headlines | Sci-Tech Headlines


I Sing The Highway Electric: Charge Net NZ To Connect New Zealand

BMW is turning Middle Earth electric after today announcing a substantial contribution to the charging network Charge Net NZ. This landmark partnership will enable Kiwis to drive their electric vehicles (EVs) right across New Zealand through the installation of a fast charging highway stretching from Kaitaia to Invercargill. More>>


Watch This Space: Mahia Rocket Lab Launch Site Officially Opened

Economic Development Minster Steven Joyce today opened New Zealand’s first orbital launch site, Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1, on the Mahia Peninsula on the North Island’s east coast. More>>


Marketing Rocks!
Ig Nobel Award Winners Assess The Personality Of Rocks

A Massey University marketing lecturer has received the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize for economics for a research project that asked university students to describe the “brand personalities” of three rocks. More>>


Nurofen Promotion: Reckitt Benckiser To Plead Guilty To Misleading Ads

Reckitt Benckiser (New Zealand) intends to plead guilty to charges of misleading consumers over the way it promoted a range of Nurofen products, the Commerce Commission says. More>>


Half A Billion Accounts, Including Xtra: Yahoo Confirms Huge Data Breach

The account information may have included names, email addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, hashed passwords (the vast majority with bcrypt) and, in some cases, encrypted or unencrypted security questions and answers. More>>


Rural Branches: Westpac To Close 19 Branches, ANZ Looks At 7

Westpac confirms it will close nineteen branches across the country; ANZ closes its Ngaruawahia branch and is consulting on plans to close six more branches; The bank workers union says many of its members are nervous about their futures and asking ... More>>

Interest Rates: RBNZ's Wheeler Keeps OCR At 2%

Reserve Bank governor Graeme Wheeler kept the official cash rate at 2 percent and said more easing will be needed to get inflation back within the target band. More>>


Get More From Scoop

Search Scoop  
Powered by Vodafone
NZ independent news