The LSA presented a webinar in a continuing series of Meet the Authors sessions, entitled “Reconstructing the evolution of Indo-European grammar” scheduled for October 15th at 12PM EST.

Authors Gerd Carling and Chundra Cathcart discussed their paper “Reconstructing the evolution of Indo-European grammar”. This study presents a new model to reconstruct the grammar of the 6500-7000 year-old Proto-Indo-European language, enabling an observation of the evolutionary dynamics of grammar over time and confirms that Proto-Indo-European was a language rich in grammatical categories. The evolution shows that some features of the proto-language were stable, whereas others had a tendency to alter or disappear; features of higher prominence and frequency were less likely to change, an observation that may relate to general principles of cognitive preference and probability to change.

View the webinar on YouTube


This study uses phylogenetic methods adopted from computational biology in order to reconstruct features of Proto-Indo-European morphosyntax. We estimate the probability of the presence of typological features in Proto-Indo-European on the assumption that these features change according to a stochastic process governed by evolutionary transition rates between them. We compare these probabilities to previous reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European morphosyntax, which use either the comparative-historical method or implicational typology. We find that our reconstruction yields strong support for a canonical model (synthetic, nominative-accusative, headfinal) of the protolanguage and low support for any alternative model. Observing the evolutionary dynamics of features in our data set, we conclude that morphological features have slower rates of change, whereas syntactic traits change faster. Additionally, more frequent, unmarked traits in grammatical hierarchies have slower change rates when compared to less frequent, marked ones, which indicates that universal patterns of economy and frequency impact language change within the family.


Gerd Carling is Associate Professor at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University. Her research focuses on language reconstruction, in particular how ancient and cultural can be used for studying language evolution and change. She has written several monographs, including dictionaries and grammars on Romani and Tocharian, and compiled an atlas on the lexical and grammatical typology of Eurasia from a cultural perspective. She has founded the DiACL database and lab, an infrastructure for reconstructing prehistoric languages by computational models, harboring data from hundreds of languages.  

Chundra Cathcart is a Senior Researcher in the Department of Comparative Language Science at the University of Zurich. His research interests revolve around language change, in particular sound change and morphological change. His work uses a wide range of quantitative and computational tools in order to explore the different pressures that drive the diversification and differentiation of related languages, including phylogenetic models from computational biology as well as deep learning methods.