DOI: 10.1075/ ISSN: 0176-4225

Disentangling Ancestral State Reconstruction in historical linguistics

Hedvig Skirgård
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics


Ancestral State Reconstruction (ASR) is an essential part of historical linguistics (HL). Conventional ASR in HL relies on three core principles: fewest changes on the tree, plausibility of changes and plausibility of the resulting combinations of features in proto-languages. This approach has some problems, in particular the definition of what is plausible and the disregard for branch lengths. This study compares the classic approach of ASR to computational tools (Maximum Parsimony and Maximum Likelihood), conceptually and practically. Computational models have the advantage of being more transparent, consistent and replicable, and the disadvantage of lacking nuanced knowledge and context. Using data from the structural database Grambank, I compare reconstructions of the grammar of ancestral Oceanic languages from the HL literature to those achieved by computational means. The results show that there is a high degree of agreement between manual and computational approaches, with a tendency for classical HL to ignore branch lengths. Explicitly taking branch lengths into account is more conceptually sound; as such the field of HL should engage in improving methods in this direction. A combination of computational methods and qualitative knowledge is possible in the future and would be of great benefit.