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Mismodeling Indo-European Origin and Expansion: Bouckaert, Atkinson, Wade and the Assault on Historical Linguistics

By Martin W. Lewis | September 4, 2012 | 89 Comments

Dear Readers,
As GeoCurrents passed through its August slowdown, plans were made for a series on the Summer Olympics. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Kremer, we have gathered statistics—and made maps—relating Olympic medal count by country to population and GDP, both overall and in regard to specific categories of competition. The series, however, has been put on hold by the …

Quentin Atkinson’s Nonsensical Maps of Indo-European Expansion

By Martin W. Lewis | September 6, 2012 | 17 Comments

The website that accompanies “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family” (August 24 Science), maintained by co-author Quentin D. Atkinson, proudly features several maps that allow the easy visualization of the patterns generated by the model. One is a conventional map that purports to show “language expansion in time and space,” depicting and dating the spread of …

Tracing Indo-European Languages Back to Their Source—Through the False Mirrors of the Popular Press

By Asya Pereltsvaig | | 26 Comments

Before we at GeoCurrents continue with our detailed critique of the Science article itself, we must first examine the media reports on the supposed findings of Atkinson and his colleagues. It is one thing for an unconvincing, error-filled report to appear in an academic journal, and quite another for it to be immediately trumpeted in the major newspapers and magazines as constituting nothing less than a major scientific breakthrough.

‘Wheel’ Vocabulary Puts a Spoke in Bouckaert et al.’s Wheel

By Asya Pereltsvaig | September 7, 2012 | 33 Comments

Bouckaert et al.’s supposed contribution consists of comparing (existing) lists of cognates for 207 meanings in 103 contemporary and ancient Indo-European languages (5047 cognate sets in total). Based on a calculation of shared cognates, their computational algorithms produce a phylogenetic* tree representing how these 103 languages are related to each other; each split on the tree is dated first in relative and then in absolute terms. Bouckaert et al. also map the resulting tree, creating an animated visualization of how these linguistic lineages supposedly split off from each other and spread across the landscape. Here, we will consider problems arising from the underlying methodology of counting shared cognates.

The Malformed Language Tree of Bouckaert and His Colleagues

By Asya Pereltsvaig | September 10, 2012 | 19 Comments

In this post, we will focus on the problems surrounding Bouckaert et al.’s tree diagram of Indo-European languages; the next post will focus on dating issues.

Absolute Dating and the Romance Problems on the Bouckaert/Atkinson Model

By Asya Pereltsvaig | September 11, 2012 | 24 Comments

As noted in the previous GeoCurrents post, Bouckaert et al.’s dating of the Romani split off the rest of the Indic tree at 1500 BCE (3,500 years ago) is a gross miscalculation. But there is a larger issue here concerning the dates for the various splits on the Indo-European family tree. The dating procedure employed by Bouckaert et al. is based on two essential assumptions: that the rate of loss (or gain) of cognates is steady, and that certain key splits—the ones they have chosen as data—have been incontestably dated through historical records. But both of these assumptions are blatantly wrong.

Why the Indo-European Debate Matters—And Matters Deeply

By Martin W. Lewis | September 13, 2012 | 41 Comments

As expected, we have received a few complaints from friends, acquaintances, and Facebook-followers in regard to the current Indo-European series. “Why get so exercised over a single article,” some ask, reminding us that science is a self-correcting endeavor that will eventually winnow away the chaff. Others question the entire enterprise, wondering why we would care so much about such an …

On Mathematical Modeling and Inter-Disciplinary Work in Historical Linguistics: A Reply to Alexei Drummond—and a Friendly Critique of the Field

By Martin W. Lewis | September 17, 2012 | 5 Comments

We would like to thank everyone who has posted comments on our recent posts on Indo-European linguistics, whether favorable or critical. As we have been highly critical ourselves, we can only expect the same in return; such is the give-and-take of the scholarly endeavor. We  will post detail replies to critical comments next week, after Asya Pereltsvaig returns from her …

The Hazards of Formal Geographical Modeling in Bouckaert et al.—and Elsewhere

By Martin W. Lewis | September 19, 2012 | 11 Comments

The linguistic and historical failings of the Bouckaert et al. Science article have been examined in previous posts and will be revisited in subsequent ones. The model’s cartographic miscues have also been dissected. The present post takes on the more abstract geographical issues associated with the authors’ approach.
The Bouckaert et al. article is overtly geographical. “Mapping” is the first word …

On Pathological Rationalism and Other Epistemological Issues in the Indo-European Controversy

By Martin W. Lewis | September 25, 2012 | 2 Comments

Epistemological issues lie near the core of the Indo-European controversy. How we acquire knowledge of the world is, in turn, one of the abiding issues of philosophy. At the risk of gross simplification, most claims to knowledge are based either on reason and evidence or on deference to accepted authorities. The latter foundation is generally religious (“it must be true …

Response to Quentin D. Atkinson

By Asya Pereltsvaig | September 27, 2012 | 24 Comments

We would like to thank Quentin D. Atkinson for taking the time to respond to our critique of the Science article by Bouckaert et al., of which he is one of the authors. While he appears to restate their team’s position rather than address specific criticisms that we had voiced, we feel that we should address those issues that Atkinson brings up in defense of their methodology.

The Misleading and Inconsistent Language Selection in Bouckaert et al.

By Martin W. Lewis | September 28, 2012 | 9 Comments

To successfully model the spread and divergence of a language family, one must select languages for one’s data set in a comprehensive, balanced, and consistent manner. Results will be skewed if large numbers of languages are excluded from analysis, if some regions and linguistic branches are covered much more thoroughly than others, or if both dialects and languages are selected …

What is Phonemic Diversity? —And Does It Prove the Out-of-Africa Theory?

By Asya Pereltsvaig | October 2, 2012 | 16 Comments

In an earlier article, Quentin Atkinson claims that by applying mathematical methods used in genetics to linguistic data from 504 living languages around the world, one can trace the origin of human language to West Africa. Here, I focus on the errors apparent merely in the abstract of that article, several of which show a lack of understanding of even the most basic linguistic concepts, taught in introductory classes.

103 Errors in Mapping Indo-European Languages in Bouckaert et al., Part I

By Martin W. Lewis | October 4, 2012 | 4 Comments

As our criticisms of Bouckaert et al. have been extremely harsh, we must justify them in some detail. I have accused the authors of erring “at every turn,” a charge that reeks of hyperbole. But even if that claim is exaggerated, it is still not too far from the mark. To demonstrate the extraordinary density of error in the Science …

103 Errors in Mapping Indo-European Languages in Bouckaert et al., Part II: from Afghanistan to Anatolia

By Martin W. Lewis | October 5, 2012 |

(Continued) Moving westward, the linguistic mapping of Iran and environs by Bouckaert et al. contains roughly the same density of error as that of South Asia. As most of these mistakes are noted in map call-outs, and others have been discussed in previous posts, I will focus here on the authors’ misperceptions about the Persian language.
The authors have divided Persian …

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