Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Unattested character states

In an earlier post from January 2016, I argued that it is important to account for directional processes when modeling language history through character-state evolution. In previous papers (List 2016; Chacon and List 2015), I  tried to show that this can be easily done with asymmetric step matrices in a parsimony framework. Only later did I realize that this is nothing new for biologists who work on morphological characters, thus supporting David's claim that we should not compare linguistic characters with the genotype, but with the phenotype (Morrison 2014). Early this year, a colleague introduced me to Mk-models in phylogenetics, which were first introduced by Lewis (2001)) and allow analysis of multi-state characters in a likelihood framework.

What was surprising for me is that it seems that Mk-models seem to outperform parsimony frameworks, although being much simpler than elaborate step-matrices defined for morphological characters (Wright and Hillis 2014). Today, I read that a recent paper by Wright et al. (2016) even shows how asymmetric transition rates can be handled in likelihood frameworks.

Being by no means an expert in phylogenetic analyses, especially not in likelihood frameworks, I tend to have a hard time understanding what is actually being modeled. However, if I correctly understand the gist of the Wright et al. paper, it seems that we are slowly approaching a situation in which more complex scenarios of lexical character evolution in linguistics no longer need to rely on parsimony frameworks.

But, unfortunately, we are not there yet; and it is even questionable whether we will ever be. The reason is that all multi-state models that have been proposed so far only handle transitions between attested characters: unattested characters can neither be included in the analyses nor can they be inferred.

I have pointed to this problem in some previous blogposts, the last one published in June, where I mentioned Ferdinand de Saussure, (1857-1913), who postulated two unattested consonantal sounds for Indo-European (Saussure 1879), of which one was later found to have still survived in Hittite, a language that was deciphered and shown to be Indo-European only about 30 years later (Lehmann 1992: 33).

The fact that it is possible to use our traditional methods to infer unattested sounds from circumstantial evidence, but not to include our knowledge about them into phylogenetic analyses, is a huge drawback. Potentially even greater are the situations where even our traditional methods do not allow us to infer unattested data. Think, for example, of a word that was once present in some language but was later completely lost. Given the ephemeral nature of human language, we have no way to know this, but we know very well that it easily happens when just thinking of some terms used for old technology, like walkman or soon even iPod, which the younger generations have never heard about.

Colleagues with whom I have discuss my concerns in this regard are often more optimistic than I am, saying that even if the methods cannot handle unattested characters they could still find the major signal, and thus tell us at least the general tendency as to how a language family evolved. However, for classical linguists, who can infer quite a lot using the laborious methods that still need to be applied manually, it leaves a sour taste, if they are told that the analysis deliberately ignored crucial aspects of the processes and phenomena they understand very well. For example, if we detect that some intelligence test is right in about 80% of all cases, we would also abstain from using it to judge who we allow to take up their studies at university.

I also think that it is not a satisfying solution for the analysis of morphological data in biology. It is probably quite likely that some ancient species had certain traits which later evolved into the traits we observe which are simply no longer attested anywhere, either in fossils or in the genes. I also wonder how well phylogenetic frameworks generally account for the fact that what the evidence we are left with may reflect much less of what was once there.

In Chacon and List (2015), we circumvent the problem by adding ancestral but unattested sounds to the step matrices in our parsimony analysis. This is of course not entirely satisfactory, as it adds a heavy bias to the analysis of sound change, which no longer tests for all possible solutions but only for the ones we fed into the algorithm. For sound change, it may be possible to substantially expand the character space by adding sounds attested across the world's languages, and then having the algorithms select the most probable transitions. But given that we still barely know anything about general transition probabilities of sound change, and that databases like Phoible (Moran 2015)  list more than 2,000 different sounds for a bit more than 2,000 languages, it seems like a Sisyphean challenge to tackle this problem consistently.

What can we do in the meantime? Not very much, it seems. But we can still try to improve our methods in baby steps, trying to get a better understanding of the major and minor processes in linguistic and biological evolution; and not forgetting that, although I was only talking about phylogenetic tree reconstruction, in the end we also want to have all of this done in network approaches.

  • Chacon, T. and J.-M. List (2015) Improved computational models of sound change shed light on the history of the Tukanoan languages. Journal of Language Relationship 13: 177-204.
  • Lehmann, W. (1992) Historical linguistics. An Introduction. Routledge: London.
  • Lewis, P. (2001) A likelihood approach to estimating phylogeny from discrete morphological character data. Systematic Biology 50: 913-925.
  • List, J.-M. (2016) Beyond cognacy: Historical relations between words and their implication for phylogenetic reconstruction. Journal of Language Evolution 1: 119-136.
  • Moran, S., D. McCloy, and R. Wright (eds) (2014) PHOIBLE Online. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology: Leipzig.
  • Morrison, D.A. (2014) Are phylogenetic patterns the same in anthropology and biology? bioRxiv.
  • Saussure, F. (1879) Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes. Teubner: Leipzig.
  • Wright, A. and D. Hillis (2014) Bayesian analysis using a simple likelihood model outperforms parsimony for estimation of phylogeny from discrete morphological data. PLoS ONE 9.10. e109210.
  • Wright, A., G. Lloyd, and D. Hillis (2016) Modeling character change heterogeneity in phylogenetic analyses of morphology through the use of priors. Systematic Biology 65: 602-611.

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