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Proc Biol Sci. Jun 22, 2011; 278(1713): 1794–1803.
Published online Nov 24, 2010. doi:  10.1098/rspb.2010.1917
PMCID: PMC3097823

Networks uncover hidden lexical borrowing in Indo-European language evolution

Abstract

Language evolution is traditionally described in terms of family trees with ancestral languages splitting into descendent languages. However, it has long been recognized that language evolution also entails horizontal components, most commonly through lexical borrowing. For example, the English language was heavily influenced by Old Norse and Old French; eight per cent of its basic vocabulary is borrowed. Borrowing is a distinctly non-tree-like process—akin to horizontal gene transfer in genome evolution—that cannot be recovered by phylogenetic trees. Here, we infer the frequency of hidden borrowing among 2346 cognates (etymologically related words) of basic vocabulary distributed across 84 Indo-European languages. The dataset includes 124 (5%) known borrowings. Applying the uniformitarian principle to inventory dynamics in past and present basic vocabularies, we find that 1373 (61%) of the cognates have been affected by borrowing during their history. Our approach correctly identified 117 (94%) known borrowings. Reconstructed phylogenetic networks that capture both vertical and horizontal components of evolutionary history reveal that, on average, eight per cent of the words of basic vocabulary in each Indo-European language were involved in borrowing during evolution. Basic vocabulary is often assumed to be relatively resistant to borrowing. Our results indicate that the impact of borrowing is far more widespread than previously thought.

Keywords: community structure, lateral transfer, phylogenetics

Articles from Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences are provided here courtesy of The Royal Society
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