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Syntactic measuring of language distances
Prof. Giuseppe Longobardi

This event took place on 17th December 2010 at 1:00pm (13:00 GMT)
Knowledge Media Institute, Berrill Building, The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom, MK7 6AA

Beyond its theoretical success, the development of molecular biology has brought about the possibility of extraordinary progress in the historical study of classification and distribution of different species and different human populations, introducing a new level of evidence on diversity (molecular genetic markers) apt, among other things, to quantitative and automatic treatment. I claim that, even in the cognitive sciences, purely theoretical progress in a certain discipline, such as linguistics, may have analogous historical impact, and in turn be confirmed by such results. Thus, I will propose to unify two unrelated lines of investigation:

  1. the study of syntactic variation (parameter theory) in the biolinguistic program
  2. the reconstruction of phylogenetic relatedness among languages
I will suggest that we are now in the position of measuring the syntactic distance among different languages and populations in a precise fashion and to explore its historical significance through the application of clustering algorithms borrowed from computational biology. The historical success of the resulting taxonomies may then support the reliability of the new method of distance calculation.

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