Glottochronology Essay Sample

Published: 2022-11-30
Glottochronology Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Research paper
Categories:  Languages
Pages: 6
Wordcount: 1473 words
13 min read

The study of languages is not new and amongst the many approaches that have been developed to create an understanding of how different languages are related is glottochronology. This refers to a method which is used to study the common aspects shared between languages by establishing similarity of a set of vocabularies within the languages that are related which is a depiction that the languages in question share a similar origin according to Gudschinsky (1956). In the context of language evolution, research by Gudschinsky (1956) found out that words adapt to the changes over time to fit into new contexts. This means that it is common for words to be recycled and minimal creation of new words over time in the study of languages has been observed. This observation indicates that it is easy to assess the relationship between different languages by determining the words shared by the languages. This research will evaluate how glottochronology can be used in linguistics to create an understanding of the phylogenetic relations between different languages. Therefore, this research seeks to establish how glottochronology is used and the extent of success in previous linguistic studies.

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Concepts of Glottochronology

Glottochronology attempts to provide dates on the historical stages of language development and how it helps to create links between different languages which could have been related at some point in time (Staller et al., 2010). The method helps to understand previous phonemic relationships between related languages especially those that originate from a parent language. Therefore, glottochronology through statistical comparisons can help to create a historical chronology of language differentiation (Gudschinsky, 1956). The concept exists under the assumption that the standard fundamental morphological elements of languages that are dissimilar indicates a common origin. This concept makes it possible to use statistical calculations to identify languages that are related and group them. Therefore, glottochronology seeks to create a more precise dating method that can help understand different historic points in the development of phonetics.

The principle of glottochronology can be established by assessing the splitting of two languages into two communalects which have varying vocabulary retention. The resulting two languages can be referred to as family languages because they share a common parent, but in the world, there are other languages apart from the descendants of the parent language which originated from the cousins of the parent language. Linear correlations can be used to assess how different languages are close to each other. Where there is a high direct correlation means that there is a recent split of the language. On the other hand, a negative correlation between two languages infers that there are fewer identical vocabularies between the languages compared to another language. This situation is common in situations where a language does not share lexical innovations with a family from the same family tree.

Key Assumptions in Glottochronology

According to Gudschinsky (1956), glottochronology is established on assumptions which makes it feasible to be used in the study of different linguistic contexts and the commonalities shared by languages with a common origin. Besides, for the model to succeed in creating hypothetical relations between languages, there is an assumption that the retention of vocabularies in languages is constant through time. Using these assumptions makes it easy for linguistic researchers to identify common aspects in two languages without the risk of the outcome being biased due to an abrupt change in a language vocabularies (Zhang & Gong, 2016).

The Procedure for Conducting Glottochronology

A procedure is a best practice which has previously been tried and proved as the best approach of carrying out a specific activity and the potential outcomes from such an action. To conduct successful research to establish the relationship between two languages it is essential to perform per the accepted framework to increase the acceptability of the outcomes. In this case, Zhang & Gong (2016) identifies the initial step when carrying out glottochronology is the identification of words within the two languages under comparison using basic vocabularies list. It is vital to collect words from both of the languages but not feasible to obtain a considerable number of words which could bring confusion especially in the situations where languages are less documented. Additionally, Zhang & Gong (2016) identifies the second step when carrying out glottochronology is the identification of lexical cognates which means words that share ordinary meaning across two languages. The identification of cognates within two languages shows that two languages are highly related or share a common origin.

Limitations of Glottochronology

The primary limitation of glottochronology is the lack of enough historical records of languages which makes it difficult to carry out a statistical investigation on the time that languages have developed independently (McMahon & McMahon, 2006). Glottochronology is only applicable to a small number of languages which have historical records over a century which is the necessary time limit for languages to evolve. In languages where historical records are scant, the researcher only observes hypothetical changes and the other challenge is that some of the recorded languages do not share a common family origin which poses validity problems to the application of glottochronology (McMahon & McMahon, 2006). Lastly, there is a limitation on the required number of cognates that are needed especially matching cognates to confirm a correspondence between two languages. As such, 100 and 200-word list is the recommended minimum number of matching words to validate a glottochronology study (Bouchard-Cote, Hall, Griffiths, & Klein, 2013). Besides, glottochronology lacks a universal concept list of the recommended cognate's composition, and the inconsistencies that may result in identifying the minimum cognates and the composition of the vocabulary list further makes it a challenge to conduct a glottochronology study.

Significance and Benefits of Glottochronology in Linguistic Studies

Glottochronology has become influential in linguistic studies by using a basic lexicon that are related and can be used to increase understanding of the lexical changes. Researchers have recommended the use of a high number of cognates which is the recommended Swadesh 200 compared to using a low number of similar cognates such as the lower Swadesh 100 because the accuracy of comparison decreases as the number of similar cognates decreases (Zhang & Gong, 2016). Therefore, glottochronology studies that use a high number of similar cognates to compare two languages have a higher accuracy level compared to studies that use a lower number of similar cognates. This implies that languages with many similar cognates are more likely to be proved related using glottochronology compared to languages with a small number of identical syllables or words that share a meaning.

Modern research on languages has increased the overall records and translations between languages which increases the overall adoption of glottochronology to study relationships between languages (Zhang & Gong, 2016). Currently, glottochronology offers statistical principles which are used to establish the validity of the subjective and generalized Swadesh 100 and 200 words list. Besides, in linguistic studies, the use of glottochronology has provided means to develop a more objective number of words required to carry out language comparison and also to establish whether the corrected amount of words can be able to confirm the correspondence of cognates (Zhang & Gong, 2016). Therefore, glottochronology improves the validity of the social science-based comparison between languages through the use of statistical functions that verify and replicate language comparison studies. Although there is reliability in linguist's intuitions and experiences in comparing languages the use of statistical approaches provided by glottochronology improves the understanding of historical relations between languages using probabilistic methods (Bouchard-Cote et al., 2013).


Glottochronology has proved to be an excellent scientific method that can be used by linguists to establish the historical relations between languages due to its statistical appeal which increases the overall accuracy and reliability of the results. Many linguists depend on the use of generalized theories and intuition to carry out a comparison between languages to establish how they are related which is prone to inaccuracy and human error. Adopting glottochronology can significantly improve language comparison because it helps to identify correspondence using Chi-square calculations which can enhance the ability to reconstruct language features more accurately. Therefore, glottochronology has more potential in the future to linguists as a method of establishing the correspondence between languages.


Bouchard-Cote, A., Hall, D., Griffiths, T. L., & Klein, D. (2013). Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(11), 4224-4229. Retrieved from

Gudschinsky, S. C. (1956). The ABC's of lexicostatistics (glottochronology). Word, 12(2), 175-210. Retrieved from

McMahon, A., & McMahon, R. (2006). Why linguists don't do dates: evidence from Indo-European and Australian languages. Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, 153-160.

Staller, J. E., Carrasco, M., & University of Calgary. (2010). Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary approaches to food, culture, and markets in ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Springer.

Zhang, M., & Gong, T. (2016). How Many Is Enough?-Statistical Principles for Lexicostatistics. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 1916. Retrieved from doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01916

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