Linguistics Homecoming Lecture Fall 2018

The Tonal Comparative Method: Leveraging Lexical Tone in Historical Linguistics
Rikker Dockum, Yale University, Dartmouth College '04
Tuesday, October 23, 2018, 4:30 pm, Reed Hall 104
Free and open to the public.
Sponsored by the Program in Linguistics

The Comparative Method (CM) is one of the primary tools of historical linguists for determining relationships between languages and reconstructing ancestor proto-languages. However, the CM has focused almost exclusively on reconstructing segments, with lexical tone sometimes used as an example of where the method is not applicable at all (Meillet 1948, Campbell 2003). Key to the scientific validity of the CM is having generally reproducible principles for distinguishing retentions and innovations from chance resemblance. Recent increases in the quantity of tone data available provide an opportunity to extend our reach by applying the logic of the CM to lexical tone, which I propose as the Tonal Comparative Method (TCM).

The rich and relatively recent tonal history of the Tai languages makes them an ideal testing ground for the TCM. Combining the traditional method with insights from computational phylogenetics, this talk shows how tonal evidence illuminates the historical picture. By using all available evidence, tonal and segmental, we can make stronger recontructions and solve difficult subgrouping problems. The TCM also increases transparency and reproducibility in historical linguistics, and the Tai languages serves as a model for how we might extend it to sound change in lexical tone systems more generally. This represents a significant step in moving historical linguistics into its bright future in the Big Data era.

Rikker Dockum (Dartmouth '04) is a linguist whose work focuses on language change, language documentation, lexical tone, evolutionary linguistics, and language contact, with a focus on Southeast Asia and the Kra-Dai language family. He has worked on projects with topics ranging from digitizing the ancient inscriptions of Thailand to creating web-based tools for learning of complex script languages. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Linguistics Department at Yale University.