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J Anthropol Sci. 2016 Jun 20;94:147-55. doi: 10.4436/JASS.94031. Epub 2015 Apr 11.

Formal linguistics as a cue to demographic history.

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Department of Language and Linguistic Science, Vanbrugh College V/C/213, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, United Kingdom; Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici, Universitá di Trieste, Via del Lazzaretto Vecchio 6, 34123 Trieste, Italy,
Department of Linguistics, 619 Williams Hall, 255 S 36th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305, USA.
Department of Language and Linguistic Science, Vanbrugh College V/C/213, University of York, Heslington, York YO10 5DD, United Kingdom.
Dipartimento di Biologia ed Evoluzione, Universitá di Ferrara, Via Luigi Borsari 46, 44100 Ferrara, Italy.
Dipartimento di Comunicazione ed Economia, Universitá di Modena e Reggio Emilia, Viale Allegri 9, 42121 Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Dipartimento di Scienze Biologiche, Geologiche e Ambientali, Universitá di Bologna, Via Selmi 3, 40126 Bologna, Italy.


Beyond its theoretical success, the development of molecular genetics has brought about the possibility of extraordinary progress in the study of classification and in the inference of the evolutionary history of many species and populations. A major step forward was represented by the availability of extremely large sets of molecular data suited to quantitative and computational treatments. In this paper, we argue that even in cognitive sciences, purely theoretical progress in a discipline such as linguistics may have analogous impact. Thus, exactly on the model of molecular biology, we propose to unify two traditionally unrelated lines of linguistic investigation: 1) the formal study of syntactic variation (parameter theory) in the biolinguistic program; 2) the reconstruction of relatedness among languages (phylogenetic taxonomy). The results of our linguistic analysis have thus been plotted against data from population genetics and the correlations have turned out to be largely significant: given a non-trivial set of languages/populations, the description of their variation provided by the comparison of systematic parametric analysis and molecular anthropology informatively recapitulates their history and relationships. As a result, we can claim that the reality of some parametric model of the language faculty and language acquisition/transmission (more broadly of generative grammar) receives strong and original support from its historical heuristic power. Then, on these grounds, we can begin testing Darwin's prediction that, when properly generated, the trees of human populations and of their languages should eventually turn out to be significantly parallel.

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