Applying New Techniques to Ancient Languages

Researching languages that have no surviving native speakers could be tricky in the extreme. Especially when all other information is sparse.

That’s when lateral thinkers turn to less obvious methods of discovery.

One such lateral thinker is Claire Bowern of Yale University, who used the evolutionary biologists’ theory of phylogenetics to map differences and similarities between all the known elements of language used by Tasmanian aborigines (before they were the victims of genocide).

Professor Bowern analysed 3200 unique words recorded between 1777 and 1847. She found that there were 12 distinct languages spoken in Tasmania before the arrival of Europeans, contrary to previous speculation that there had only been one or two.

While this serves to heighten the scale of what has been lost, it’s an interesting example of how scientists can profit from applying techniques of other disciplines.

Courtesy of Jennifer Ellison at

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