The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Subgrouping Languages: Examining Genetic Relationships and Their Implications in Human History

Joint Research Coordinator KIKUSAWA Ritsuko

Reserch Theme List


languages, phylogenetic relationships (of languages), linguistic change

Major Objectives (Extract of Application 5-1 Objectives)

The approximately 7,000 languages spoken in the world today are classified into several systems known as language families, and the systemic relationships among these various language families can be delineated with systemic (genealogical) maps. Language families and systemic relationships in their original definition are determined by whether it can be proven through the comparative method that they share a common ancestor language (founder language). Systematic classification of actual languages can also receive clues from characteristics based on typological theory and geographical divisions, historical records, and other characteristics.

The objectives of this research will be as follows: (1) to seek what the latest systemic classifications are, and what techniques and what methods are employed in discussing systemic relationships; (2) to seek the appropriateness of the methods discussed in item 1, and the feasibility of their application to other language families; (3) to understand the current situation about implication of the systematic classification of languages in prehistorical and historical research in various regions, verifying and generalizing the methodology for searching more scientific methods for language classification research with a higher degree of universal applicability; and (4) to seek to discover a way to relate these results to research concerning language prehistory and history.

Research Results

The primary achievements of this project on historical linguistics and linguistic change were (a) a demonstration based on concrete cases of how research on various language groups has used different approaches and methods, and (b) the identification of both differences and similarities in approach and methodology. Researchers specializing in the historical and comparative linguistics of different language families were assembled for this project and each selected a topic related to his/her interests. The following presentations were made:

  • Comparative method and comparative reconstruction (Proto-Indo-European prosody, Arabic dialects)
  • Comparative reconstruction based on vestigial properties (Japanese accents, case systems of languages in Oceania, phonology of West Nile languages)
  • Borrowing (Japanese and Aynu, Japanese and introduced vocabulary)
  • Language contact (Bantu and Malagasy, Aynu and Austronesian languages)
  • Prehistory (rice and language contact)

The project culminated with the February 2013 international symposium Let’s Talk about Trees. Both open to the public and streamed online, invited participants included geneticists, biologists and experts in phylogenetics. This was done to stimulate development of a phylogenetic model to advance research on relationships between/among languages.

While the project was on-going its members also organized an international conference on historical linguistics (held in July, 2011). Also, they were involved in a project at the Tsukuba University of Technology entitled "Building a basic platform for research related to information support: Creating a corpus of Japanese and Japanese sign language materials." This project emerged from concerns about information handicaps suffered by the hearing-impaired. In addition, project members organized the Japan Society for Historical Linguistics, thereby demonstrating the potential of historical linguistics research in Japan.