Vertical and Lateral Aspects of Chinese Dialect History

This research project was funded from January 2015 until December 2016 by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft under the title Vertical and lateral aspects of Chinese dialect history. It enabled me to study in two labs in Paris, one with biologists and one with sinologists, in order to investigate the potential of computational approaches to study Chinese dialect history. The original abstract of the project application was the following:

Despite a long tradition of research, only little is known about the origin and diversification of the Chinese dialects. The reason for this is the specific sociolinguistic situation in China, where - for over two thousand years - countless, mostly mutually unintelligible linguistic varieties have been developing under the roof of a common culture and a common writing system. Under the influence of centripetal forces caused by varying prestige languages, centrifugal forces resulting from geographical distance, and different waves of migrations, a language family hase emerged whose linguistic divergence resembles that of the Romance languages, but whose history is so complex and intertwined that it seems impossible to describe it by means of a classical family tree. This is also reflected in traditional Chinese dialectology which confines itself to divide the Chinese dialects into static groups without trying to develop hypotheses as to how these groups have emerged. One of the biggest problems in this context is the distinction of inherited (vertical) and borrowed (lateral) features, which is immensely aggravated by the extensive language contact in China. Along with the recent quantitative turn in historical linguistics, many methods from bioinformatics were applied to linguistic problems. Most new methods limit themselves to the reconstruction of language trees. Implicitly, they draw a parallel between language evolution and the mostly tree-like evolution of animals and plants. Recent research, however, has shown that it may be more appropriate to resort to biological network approaches that have been developed to study bacterial evolution. Since lateral gene transfer plays a similarly important role in bacterial evolution as borrowing does in language development, biological network approaches provide both formal means to model vertical and lateral aspects of language history, and different methods to distinguish them from each other. Based on interdisciplinary cooperation with biologists and sinologists from Paris, this research project will use network methods to explore vertical and lateral aspects of Chinese dialect history in detail. Existing methods will be further refined, adapted to linguistic needs, and applied to a large lexical database of Chinese dialects, which will be created specifically for this purpose. In this way, the project will contribute to Chinese dialect classification in particular, and to quantitative modeling of language history in general.

The project has now finished, and for those who are interested in particular findings, I recommend to have a look at the papers and talks I gave during 2015 and 2016, as they reflect best the different aspects of the research project. For the final report (Abschlussbericht, in German), please follow this link.